Author: Tayari Jones
Publisher: Vintage Books
An American Marriage is a powerful novel and it is a novel that will haunt you long after you finish reading.
Tayari Jones’ novel about marriage, life and the criminal justice system is intelligent and compassionate and never didactic.
The story begins with Roy and Celestial – a newlywed black couple who are intelligent, beautiful, successful and upwardly mobile. Roy and Celestial are going places. Roy is an ambitious, handsome man who isn’t the perfect husband (he has a wandering eye) but it is clear that he is devoted to Celestial and their life together. Celestial is a strong black woman who is an up and coming artist. She has reservations concerning Roy, particularly his disdain of her career and is suspicious of his fidelity but she doesn’t question his love for her or his wanting to build a life with her. Roy and Celestial are strong-minded individuals who are new to marriage and they are figuring out how to remain true to themselves and how to be a couple with a shared future.
“I know that there are those out there who would say that our marriage was in trouble,” Roy says. “People have a lot of things to say when they don’t know what goes on behind closed doors, up under the covers, and between night and morning. But as a witness to, and even a member of, our relationship. I’m convinced that it was the opposite.”
Then on a visit back home, Roy is arrested for a crime he did not commit. He is tried, convicted and sentenced to twelve years in prison.
Tayari Jones gives us a little insight to the couple before Roy is imprisoned, but it is scarcely a glance at their lives together. This helps play into the fact that Roy and Celestial have hardly begun their married life together when Roy is put in prison for twelve years.
The story is then told through letters that Roy and Celestial write to each other during his imprisonment. The letters are emotional and you feel their frustration and anger with the circumstances that life has thrown their way. You learn more about each character through the letters. As the years’ progress, you can feel that Celestial life is moving forward. Her career is flourishing and she a success both artistically and financially. You don’t learn much about Roy’s life while he is in prison and you so you get this sense of Roy being stuck.
Tayari Jones is a talented writer. I don’t think you ever fully take sides between Roy and Celestial as you watch their marriage and future collapse. She presents the story in such a way that you can see where both of them are coming from and you wonder how they can both move forward to being happy. Jones will tug your heart in different directions and you’ll find yourself being more sympathetic to a certain character but then she will take you in another direction in the next few pages. You can feel the pain of both Roy and Celestial. She never ignores their flaws or their arrogance, but she also shows two people who want the best for each other. Two people who are ultimately kind and good. You can also see the growth of both Roy and Celestial. They are much nicer people at the end of the book then they were at the beginning.
This is a book about marriage as the title of the book suggests but it is so much more. It is a novel about the criminal justice system in American which from all reports is seriously letting the American people down, particularly black Americans. The book is set in Louisiana, the state with the highest per-capita rate of incarceration in the United States and where the ratio of black to white prisoners is four to one. Startling statistics and the way that Jones writes the arrest, trial and conviction are so matter of fact. Roy has no chance. It is quite chilling and is a timely reminder that we all should remain considerate and empathic and not so quick to judge. For only the grace of good fortune, this could happen to anyone.
Of course, An American Marriage is at its heart a love story, but it is so much more than a love story. It is, of course, a comment on our society today and who we are as people.