An American Marriageby Tayari Jones Published 06 Feb 2018
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Newlyweds Celestial and Roy are the embodiment of both the American Dream and the New South. He is a young executive, and she is an artist on the brink of an exciting career. But as they settle into the routine of their life together, they are ripped apart by circumstances neither could have imagined. In this deft exploration of love, loyalty, race, justice, and both Black masculinity and Black womanhood in 21st century America, Jones achieves that most-elusive of all literary goals: the Great American Novel.
Named an Oprah’s Book Club Selection.
"An American Marriage" Reviews
Much of life is timing and circumstance, I see that now.
I know it's still early, but I've got a feeling this is going to be one of my favourite reads of 2018. It is a powerful, subtle, sad tale about the criminal justice system in America, and the personal, long-term consequences of its injustices.
There's a lot of discussion, articles and fiction looking at race-based injustice in the prison system of the United States. Most of these focus on racial-profiling of young black men, and how juries are more likely to convict a black man than a white man when presented with the same evidence. An American Marriage, though, does something a bit different.
While race - specifically, being a black American - is one of the major pillars of the novel, it is not so much the focus as the stage on which this tale of love, marriage and loyalty plays out. Instead of looking at the injustice itself, the novel turns to the far-reaching consequences of it - how lives are turned upside down and relationships fall apart as a result. It is driven by complex and fascinating character drama, moving between the perspectives of the entirely non-white cast to create a character portrait that is both broad and deep.
Roy is a hard-working, entrepreneurial black man who has clawed his way out of a working-class background, earned a scholarship to college, and married a middle-class artist, Celestial. Next step: starting a family together. Then, during a trip back home to Louisiana, Roy is accused and convicted of a crime he didn't commit.
As the first person narrative gives way to an epistolary format during Roy's time in prison, we see how Roy's incarceration drives a wedge between him and Celestial. An American Marriage asks us to consider what it really means to be married, and whether there comes a point when loyalty can no longer be expected.
We are ultimately reminded that injustices against innocent black men are injustices against many others - the wives or husbands, the mothers and fathers, and the friends who love them. Jones sheds a haunting light on the all-encompassing nature of racial injustice. It is extremely effective.
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I can’t say that I loved An American Marriage. What I can say, is that it made me think deeply about human nature, love, and, of course, marriage.
This is a thought-provoking, well-written, depth-filled character study about a marriage on the brink.
Celestial and Roy, a young couple from Atlanta, have been married for just over a year when Roy is arrested and sentenced to 12 years in jail. Will their marriage survive their separation or will they be able to withstand Roy’s incarceration? The bulk of the story focuses on a love triangle between Roy, Celestial, and Celestial’s childhood friend, Andre. In addition to romantic love and marriage, themes of motherhood and fatherhood, race, class, and tradition also play prominent roles.
Told in alternating point of views, as well as through letters, the devolution of Roy and Celestial’s marriage is revealed through their letters. Some of the events are hard to read, and at times, made me a little uncomfortable.
This is not a pretty read, nor is it one that is filled with action. What it does have are three very real, well-drawn out characters who are struggling with both the choices that they have made and not being able to change what they cannot control. I felt their pain, their emotions permeate the pages, and even though I didn’t always agree with them, I understood their choice(s). The ending felt authentic and while some might not like the way how things play out, I was satisfied. This is a credit to Jones who paints an honest picture of the characters and events that occur.
An American Marriage by Tayari Jones is a 2018 Algonquin Books publication.
Well drawn characterizations and a thought provoking and timely topic combines to make a potent blend, which kept me riveted to the pages of this book.
Roy had done everything right, is successful, married to a beautiful woman, living the American dream- until he is falsely accused of rape and sent to prison.
Celestial finds her comfortable life turned on its axis after Roy is incarcerated. She remains loyal to her husband, but as the years pass, her life continues to move forward, while Roy’s stagnates behind bars, and her feelings for him begin to wane, prompting her to seek comfort from another man.
Meanwhile, lawyers are working round the clock to get Roy’s conviction overturned- which miraculously, after serving five years, it is!!
But, Roy, soon learns that easing back into his former life and resuming his marriage with Celestial is easier said than done.
What stands out for me in this novel, are the little nuances. Roy, who opens the dialogue in the first chapter, drew me in with his honesty, and humor, which was occasionally sheepish and self- deprecating, even though I disapproved of some of his actions.
Celestial was, for some reason, a character I found difficult to warm up to at first, but upon reflection, I think her character may have gone through the most productive growth of all.
Celestial’s needs and expectations are different from Roy’s ideals, some of which can be attributed to male/female roles and expectations in a marriage, and others to their own individuality. But, throw in a HUGE live altering test of the marriage and it will either strengthen or fall apart. Which way did things go for Roy and Celestial?
The other timely topics explored have to do with racism and mass incarceration. Prison life is fraught with danger and loneliness, and of course Roy missed his former life, but it was simple things, things we so easily take for granted that makes the bleakness of his situation come alive.
Despite their flaws, and each party has their fair share of them, they were basically ordinary people thrown in an extraordinary circumstance and left to cope with those circumstances as best they could. They were both human, with real needs, desires, hopes, and dreams. Both made excuses, both played the blame game, but both have a bond together they find hard to break free of.
The epistolary parts of the novel were well done, which exposes both the closeness and the awkwardness of the marriage, but also the way time robbed them of the growth marriages need to survive.
The secondary characters were added depth and conflict and were also very well drawn, and equally affected by the outcome of Roy and Celetial's marriage.
While the book is not filled with action or suspense, or even, despite the heaviness of the situation, is it melodramatic, with one exception, that, to be honest, almost had to happen, to break the tension that boiled to the surface. There were a few tense moments that made me pretty uncomfortable, but mostly the author just allowed the characters to flow, to take charge, and dictate the pacing. This approach sounds understated and maybe even underwhelming, but this story was incredibly absorbing, and I have to say the conclusion was surprising- but at the same time- not. Despite some misgivings and mixed emotions about how the characters ended up, overall, I think they may be exactly where they need to be, both as individuals and as a couple. It may be tempting to take sides, but I can’t say I would do better or worse in that same situation, but I did struggle with passing judgments on occasion.
Either way, this is a well written examination of relationships and human foibles, and how otherwise normal, well intentioned, good people face adversity and come out on the other end of it changed, for better or worse.
4 stars! This was a beautifully written, thought-provoking, slow burn novel that crept its way into my heart, settling deep within my bones. I will be thinking of these characters long after finishing this book.
This story follows Roy and Celestial, a young newlywed couple who have a passionate and impetuous relationship – loving deeply and arguing stubbornly. They are from different “worlds”, but have found an explosive love and connection with one another. Less than two years after getting married, Roy is arrested and sentenced to twelve years in prison for a crime Celestial knows he did not commit.
The story is narrated by both Roy and Celestial, along with Celestial’s childhood friend Andre. There are several letters included throughout the story between various characters, mainly Roy and Celestial while he is in prison. These letters were a brilliant addition to the story – my connection with the characters grew stronger as each letter was revealed.
The author, Tayari Jones, writes with such beauty and clarity. I was fully invested in this emotional and chaotic story, rooting for these characters to overcome their devastating situation. My heart has made a special spot for “Big Roy”, Roy’s father – he was an outstanding and unforgettable character – I simply adored him!
I highly recommend this deep and touching book. It took a few chapters to pull me in, so be prepared for a slow burn that will gradually make its way into your soul.
Edited 9/20 to add: My book club discussed this last night and while not everyone loved the book (but no one disliked it), it made for a lively and interesting discussion. I'd highly recommend for book clubs.
I’m afraid I’m in the outlier club with this one.
What I liked:
- The writing is gorgeous. 4-5 stars for the beauty of the prose. Plus the author writes in a way that sounds like the way real people think and talk
- The letters Celestial and Roy exchanged
- How one unfortunate tragic event, unfair as it was, can totally change the trajectory of your life. It gives food for thought.
- it was thought-provoking with complex moral themes surrounding loyalty and marriage
What I didn’t like:
- The characters. While I sympathized with their plight I just didn’t like them. Which I can’t explain because I usually like my characters somewhat complicated and flawed. Unlikability is not a deal breaker, but I like what I like and often I can’t even explain why I am so turned off by some characters.
- The plot – after the beginning I just stopped caring. It felt like I was reading the script of a cheesy movie. There’s a time and place for cheesy, it just wasn’t what I was expecting when I went into this book.
- The epilogue! My eyes may have rolled more than once.
I will definitely read anything else the author writes because I found this book so well-written and her style so engaging, but this one just didn't quite work for me. It all boiled down to plot.
One of the things I liked the most about this novel is that a portion of the book is comprised of letters, mostly between Roy while in prison for a crime he didn’t commit and his wife Celestial. Letter writing seems like it’s from a bygone time and I never feel as if e-mail and certainly not texts adequately reflect the intimate picture of ourselves that a hand written letter does. This is not just about the intimate look at this one relationship, but it’s about their families and their pasts. On another level though, it’s a commentary on the judicial system that isn’t always fair and of the racism reflected in the prison system.
Through these letters and their alternating narratives as well as Andre, who is Celestial’s life long friend, the complexity of these individuals is depicted. It becomes clear in many ways how their pasts and their family situations shaped them as the adults they are today, but it isn’t clear about what their decisions will be moving forward when it is determined that Roy is innocent and is released from prison after serving five years. I was impressed with how evenly these characters are portrayed. I equally liked and disliked each of them at different times. The two characters that I had no reservations about were Ray’s parents Big Ray and Olive who loved Ray unconditionally. A lot of times like so many other readers I suspect, when we’re in the middle of a book we have an idea, a hope perhaps, of how we want the story to conclude . I wasn’t sure how I wanted this to end and I was surprised, but satisfied when I read the epilogue. Even though Roy and Celestial had been married for just over a year before he is incarcerated, it was sad that the racial injustices of the system, of society overall took from them the next five years of their marriage. A thought provoking and moving story for sure.
Thanks to Diane for sending me this book.