Family Tapestries

Novels about family have been a go-to genre for me for years. Some call it “women’s fiction,” often with a slightly-derisive tone. Let them be derisive. These books, especially when they are well-written as the two featured here are, hit me in the heart, reminding me of relationships I have had, lost, or wished for. French Braid and Chorus approach the theme of family with a distinct narrative approach that weaves together the stories of different individuals into the tapestry of a family. They both worked for me in powerful ways.

French Braid by Anne Tyler

French Braid is a classic Anne Tyler book. It takes place in Baltimore. It features a family you think is strange until the end when you love them all dearly in spite of their quirks. The writing is strong and sure, lulling you into the narrative flow of the story in a way that is both soothing and softly propulsive.

Unlike some of Tyler’s books, though, this one takes place across several generations. The family featured – the Garretts – are quiet and often disconnected. The narration is not sequential, and each chapter takes the point of view of a different family member. Some readers might be put off by this style, but I loved it. Each chapter was a slice of time and place and events, and in each we gained insight into not just the narrator but the rest of the family, as well.

As I was reading, I wondered about the title, then got near the end for the explanation when a character says about a French braid: “That’s how families work, too. You think you’re free of them, but you’re never really free; the ripples are crimped in forever.”


Chorus by Rebecca Kauffman

There are moments when you finish the final pages, close the cover, and think, “Oh, that was such a lovely book.” For me, Chorus by Rebecca Kauffman was that kind of novel.

As I read it, my mind occasionally turned back to French Braid which I had taken in just a few weeks before (did I think “Oh, they’d make a good pair of books to pair up for a blogpost?” Not at the time, but only because we hadn’t started the blog!). The metaphors featured in these books’ titles speak to the same overarching themes. Just as a french braid is made up of separate strands twisted together to make a whole and a chorus is voices joined in varying levels of harmony, both of these books take the distinct stories of sisters and brothers (and others) over many years to create the story of a family.

Chorus, with stories ranging from very early in the 20th century to 1959 (my birth year!), had a more melancholic tone than French Braid. In this book, there is an important absent voice – the siblings’ mother who died of an overdose of sleeping pills in 1933. The mother is often a part of the chapters – sometimes as a focal point and sometimes as an echo – and as the narratives accumulate, the reader sees how this singular event has shaped them all.

Both of these books, then, draw you quietly but firmly into the complicated lives of singular yet linked individuals. We see how, together, these stories weave the fabric that makes family. There were times when I adored these families and times when I wanted to scream in frustration for what they put themselves (and each other) through. Kind of like my own family, I suppose. And aren’t these connections to our own lives one of the most precious aspects of disappearing into fictional worlds?

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