Extracts

Read an extract of French Braid by Anne Tyler

Anne Tyler is one of our greatest and most celebrated novelists. Her novel French Braid is a brilliantly perceptive, painfully true and funny journey deep into one family's foibles, from the 1950s right up to the changed world of today. Here, we're introduced to the unforgettable Garrett family.

The book French Braid against a midnight blue background

 

On the morning of September 6, 1970 — a Sunday, clear and cool but nowhere near fall-like yet — Robin and Mercy Garrett drove their son, David, to Islington, Pennsylvania, to start his freshman year at Islington College. They settled him in his room, they introduced themselves to his roommate (a nice enough boy, by the looks of him, though not half as nice as her boy, Mercy felt), and they said their goodbyes and left.

For most of the drive home, they were quiet. Occasionally they would say things like “Those walls could have used a coat of paint, in my opinion” (this from Robin) and “I wonder if David will remember a single word of my laundry instructions” (from Mercy). But generally, they stayed sunk in that sort of silence that radiates unspoken thoughts—complicated, conflicting thoughts cluttering the air inside the car.

Then, on the Baltimore Beltway, fifteen minutes from home, Robin said, “I suppose we should kick up our heels tonight, now that we’re back to just the two of us. Go out for a fancy meal or, I don’t know, have wild sex on the living- room floor or something” — a dry little laugh here — “but you know? I’m feeling kind of let down, to be honest.”

“Well, of course you are, honey,” Mercy told him. “We’ve lost the last remaining chick in our nest! It’s natural we would feel low.”

And she did feel low; no question about it. In many ways David was the child closest to her heart, although she’d expected to feel closer to her girls. After Alice and Lily left home it was just David and his parents, and the chaos died down and sometimes Mercy was able to hold actual brief conversations with him. Besides which, Alice had always been so bossy and confident, and Lily was such a, well, mess, really; but David had a sort of stillness about him and a listening, attentive quality that Mercy had come to appreciate, these past few years.

But. Even so. Mercy had a plan in mind, and of the many emotions that she was feeling as they drove home, the predominate one was anticipation.

On Monday morning, as soon as Robin left for work, Mercy went to her closet and retrieved a flattened Sunkist carton she’d picked up at the supermarket. She opened it out, reinforced the bottom with packing tape, and started filling it with clothes.

Not all her clothes. Oh, no. To look in her bureau drawers, once she’d rifled them, you would never suppose anything was missing. Knit tops remained, but just the ones she didn’t wear very often— the faded ones, the unbecoming ones. Underpants remained, but just the ones with the waistbands going. The carton was not over- large— she had to be able to carry it for several blocks— and she didn’t pack it too tightly. Plenty of clothes still hung in her closet that she hadn’t even looked at yet.

But she had all the time in the world for that.

She folded the flaps of the carton shut, hefted it to one hip, carried it down to the kitchen, and let herself out the back door.

It was Labor Day, and although Robin had gone in to work as usual, a lot of the neighbors were still asleep. She walked down her street without encountering a single other person, and once she’d turned onto Belvedere the few pedestrians she saw were strangers. They didn’t give her so much as a glance.

On Perth Road, she took a right at the third house from the corner— a white clapboard house with a patchy little front lawn— and followed a worn path around back to the garage. A fragile- looking wooden staircase ran up one side. She climbed it and unlocked the door to her studio.

It wasn’t the sort of studio originally meant to be lived in. At some point someone must have fixed it up for a teenage son itching to leave home, or a husband longing for a den. Not counting the tiny bathroom carved out of a rear corner, the space was a single open square with one window overlooking the patio. The kitchen area was merely a linoleum- topped sink counter with a hot plate sitting on top of it and a miniature fridge alongside. There was a small Formica table and a single chair that Mercy never sat in, because she liked to stand when she was painting. Tubes of acrylics and jars of brushes and various- sized pads of canvas paper were strewn across the table’s surface— the only clutter she allowed herself. The couch was a daybed with a faded brown corduroy slipcover, and the bureau beside it bore a tasseled lamp that couldn’t take a bulb over forty watts. More linoleum on the floor, but in a different pattern from the linoleum on the counter. No curtains; just a yellowed paper shade. No rug. No closet.

Mercy loved it.

Robin had balked, at first, when she’d proposed renting it. That was three years ago, when both girls were already long gone. He’d said, “Why not paint in the girls’ room? The girls’ room is standing empty!”

“The girls’ room is our guest room,” she told him.

The Garretts never had overnight guests. Mercy’s few relatives lived nearby and Robin’s were mostly dead, and they knew nobody out of town. But Robin couldn’t argue further, because even though he was the family’s sole earner, the store belonged to Mercy and so she had some say in their household finances. She wondered how the conversation would have ended if that hadn’t been the case. He was proud to have a wife who painted, she knew, but she suspected he thought of it as a hobby, like embroidery or crochet.

This was about to change, if Mercy had anything to say about it. She removed the few items in the chest of drawers— extra art supplies, an out- of- date Life magazine— and replaced them with the clothes she’d brought. She had also brought a toothbrush and a tube of toothpaste, a shower cap, a comb, and a bottle of shampoo. She put these in the bathroom, which till now had been outfitted only with a bar of soap and a hand towel. Then she sat down on the daybed and stared out the window. This was what she planned to do here: sit and think, all by herself. Or not think. Be a blank. In addition to painting, of course.

From where she sat, all she could see was the top of the oak tree that towered in the Motts’ backyard. Beyond that was sky, but she couldn’t see the sky right now, because the oak was still fully leafed out. The leaves hadn’t even started to turn; they were a deep, lustrous green, and they gave her a feeling of peace.

Finally she stood up and retrieved her empty carton and went home.

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