Published by Algonquin Books
Publication date: February 6th 2018
Genres: Book Clubs, Contemporary, Fiction, Social Issues
Where are you left when you’ve been married for less than two years and your husband is sent to prison for a crime he didn’t commit? This is the weighty premise of Tayari Jones’s new novel, An American Marriage. Celestial and Roy are a young couple on their way in Atlanta. She is an artist and he is in marketing, they have a nice home and right up until they go to Louisiana to visit his parents, life is full of promise. Like any marriage it’s not perfect but there is nothing in either of their minds or experiences to comprehend him being sent away for twelve years for a rape he supposedly committed while staying in a motel…with Celestial.
This is not a blockbuster crime novel. There is no search for the actual rapist. This is something much quieter and deeper—Jones turning a steady gaze at what happens to two people who find themselves married, but not together. In doing so, she tosses out tropes and manufactured drama and forces the reader to settle in for the long haul and what it does, not just to the person in the cell, but also the one left in the outside world. To do so, she tells An American Marriage from three vantage points: Celestial, Roy, and Andre, Celestial’s childhood friend who also knows Roy from college and introduced them.
After Roy is gone, a large section of An American Marriage is in letter format between the two. I don’t generally like extensive letters in novels but, in this case, it’s necessary. Aside from the limited face-to-face visits it is the easiest form of communication, at least for its reliability. Beyond that, unless they’re love letters, they’re not always the best way to convey feelings and thoughts because they are a monologue. So, we watch as Roy and Celestial make their points, stake their ground, and move further apart rather than closer together. Both go through intense experiences without the other one present and it frays their fragile bond. That Celestial has a friend in Andre, who not only understands her, but stands by Roy, complicates things even more. When Roy’s lawyer (paid for by Celestial’s family) gets him acquitted and out of prison in five years, all three must decide if past trumps present and what it means for the future.
An American Marriage has gotten a tremendous amount of buzz and was picked by Oprah for her book club and it’s easy to see why. At every turn, a question is posed that forces the reader to contemplate deeply held beliefs and emotions. Jones digs past the rocky top soil of the justice system’s endemic bias against African Americans to expose the tender roots of the more personal, generational expectations of family and gender role definitions. She does so with steady prose that balances three divergent points-of-view and treats each with the utmost respect. This makes An American Marriage that speaks the truth to larger societal issues even as it whispers to the smallest longings of the heart.