An American Marriage

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Tayari Jones’s new novel (and Oprah’s newest Book Club pick) An American Marriage is perhaps one of the most masterfully written and poignant novels of the year. It tells the story that is often ignored in literature – that of the devastation wrought in so many African-American households, families and communities as its young men are locked up at an alarming rate (according to the NAACP, more than five times the rates of whites). The wreckage of this uneven distribution of justice reverberates throughout this fictional story, just as it does through the very real lives of the black community.

As Jones begins her story we are introduced to Roy, an up-and-comer in the sales and marketing world, and his wife Celestial, an artist. They are both educated and decidedly middle-class newlyweds who see nothing but opportunity in store for their futures. They may have their ups and downs adapting to married life – especially Roy with his wandering eye – but they are very much in love. Underlying all this happiness however, is the apprehension that something terrible is going to happen, and finally, it does.

“Human emotion is beyond comprehension, smooth and uninterrupted, like an orb made of blown glass.” (p. 138)

After less than two years of marriage, Roy, a young man in the prime of his life, is falsely accused of the rape of an older white woman and sentenced to 12 years in prison. What comes next is not a courtroom drama in the vein of To Kill a Mockingbird, or a quest to find out who in fact, did commit the crime. Instead, it focuses on what happens as life continues for everyone around Roy, while his life remains in a constant, unending stasis that threatens to unravel his spirit, his hope, and his family.

For the next fifty pages the reader feels like a voyeur, as the novel is written in epistolary format. At first Roy clings to everything he knew on the outside while Celestial (who is by this time building up a portfolio as an artist) remains a devoted wife, visiting him regularly. As the letters wear on throughout the years of incarceration, Roy feels his grip on everything begin to slide. Celestial acknowledges her feelings of loss, saying she is “so lonely I talk to the walls and sing to the ceiling” (p. 41) while Roy voices his frustration that meager pen and paper letters are the only tools he had to be a husband with.

As their lives continue to diverge from each other and Celestial becomes a part of the Atlanta art world, Roy becomes more accustomed to incarceration. They can no longer relate to each other as they once could, and with no common ground, their marriage breaks down.

In the painful unraveling and constantly rotating perspectives of Celestial, Roy, and Andre (Celestial’s childhood best friend) the novel implicitly poses the questions: What makes family? Is it only biology or is it something more? What makes a good marriage? And can one thrive despite the harsh, often unendurable conditions described? An American Marriage also examines privilege and values, authority, and the depth of friendship and devotion.

As the novel reaches an emotional climax, the reader is given plenty of things to think about, not least of which is the lengths people will go to ensure stability in their own lives and in the lives of those around them. After all, miscarriages of justice happen all the time… it could even happen to you.

Explore the complicated relationships

in An American Marriage

Whitney Z. is a native Pittsburgher. She is currently a substitute Library Assistant who loves audiobooks, music and movies. She believes firmly that NASA made a mistake in demoting Pluto and would sincerely like for said decision to be reversed.