- What: An American Marriage
- Who: Tayari Jones
- Pages: 306
- Genre: Contemporary fiction
- Published: 2018
- The lit: of 5 flames
I love books that challenge my opinions, what I think I know about the world and how I’d respond in certain situations (see The Patriots). Am I as forgiving as I think? Is my unconditional love really that unconditional, or can it be based on time and circumstance? Would I really stand up for what’s right in a very compromising situation? Point is: You never know unless you’re in someone else’s shoes. Outcomes are never accurately predicted.
Tayari Jones provides these existential questions in her 2018 smash, An American Marriage, which Oprah has promoted. You think you know what you’re getting when you read the book sleeve about a black man in the south being wrongly accused of a crime. The New York Times says it best. “An American Marriage tells us a story we think we know … But Jones’s story isn’t the one we are expecting.” It’s a story that had me asking “What would I do?” from start to finish and flipping furiously to learn what decisions the characters would make. And let’s be honest: If something is fine by Oprah, it’s fine be me too.
An American Marriage is set in the U.S. south during the 1990s when racial inequality is pretty glaring if you take a quick drive through Atlanta and out to the suburbs. Celestial — a pistol with an independence that’s completely her own — and Roy — who came from humble beginnings but is on the up and up — have been married for just over a year when the unthinkable happens (or maybe not so unthinkable for a young black man). He’s accused of a crime he does not commit while the couple is visiting his parents in small-town Louisiana. He’s wrongfully convicted, whisked away to prison, and Celestial is left wondering how she can keep her independence in tact while fulfilling her vows of ’til death do us part.
The differences between the two were always there; Roy’s time in prison only magnified them. He’s from a small town with traditional parents, and that traditional mindset still carries some weight. She comes from money and a family that knows they could never truly marry her off to someone to be under his protection. Together, they become the new black elite in Atlanta until that night that would leave Roy with a 12-year prison sentence. Even though Celestial is determined to “stand by her man,” she finds comfort in her childhood friend and the best man at their wedding, Andre. Once Roy is released from prison five years later after an appeal overturns his ruling, she’s forced to reconcile the past with a new life she’s built for herself.
“There are too many loose ends in the world in need of knots.” — An American Marriage
A good portion of this story is told through letters that Celestial and Roy write to one another after he’s convicted. The letters become less and less frequent and more and more tied to tension in the marriage and the predicament that’s enveloped them. Eventually, Celestial stops writing all together, and that’s when we learn she’s moved on despite not seeking a formal divorce. Every mixed emotion they’re both feeling is poured out into their letters, which allows you to become these characters.
“But home isn’t where you land; home is where you launch.” — An American Marriage
Throughout this book, I was constantly pulled in two separate directions. How could you give up on your husband? How about those vows? But, also, you have to live your life, Celestial, and make yourself happy. (Good thing she didn’t come to me for my capricious advice.)
I couldn’t stop wondering what I would do, and by the last page, I couldn’t come up with an answer because, despite their differences, Celestial and Roy truly loved each other. There was never a question about that. Had this horrible incident never happened, would they have stayed together forever? That’s an impossible question to answer. She also loves Andre, the one person who’s been there for her since the beginning of her life; he’s naturally the one she’d find comfort in, and how could she turn her back on him?
How could anyone decide? It’s not as if she can be indifferent.
That’s the power in Jones’ work. She makes you ask all the hard questions. As readers, we’re just fortunate enough that we don’t actually have to answer them. Stephanie Powell Watts though doesn’t let us off that easily though, “[The book] also warns us to awaken our compassion and empathy,” she writes in her New York Times review. “This can be you, the story whispers. Forget that at your peril.”
“Bullet don’t have nobody’s name on it, that’s what people say. I think the same is true for vengeance. Maybe even for love. It’s out there, random and deadly, like a tornado.” — An American Marriage
This awakened compassion reflects Jones’ clear critique of the racism that still exists in American society; she’s letting us know that such a travesty still happens and can still break up a family. In the midst of this theme of American racism, the author makes us question why and how, on many different levels. This book is about choices, especially the choices we make when the ones we’re left with are nothing but bleak. Forcing your readers to step into somebody else’s life — when it’s completely different than the one you know — in an impossible situation is a talent that can’t be matched.
“Much of life is timing and circumstance, I see that now.” — An American Marriage