An American Marriage by Tayari Jones
I devoured this book in two plane rides to and from Columbus, Ohio. I was sleep deprived and exhausted but I could. not. put. it. down. Tayari, sis, let’s talk about your genius. I’m going to try to review this book without giving too much away, but you should basically stop here and go put this title in your Amazon cart right now. Actually, just go with the “buy now” option and forget the hemming and hawing of trying to decide if you really need to get it. You do.
At the heart of this incredible novel about what happens when two people are at the beginning of a love story that could go either way — an epic for the ages or a sad split — and the unimaginable happens is the question of what it really means to love and cherish someone until “death do us part.” The story is told through the first person narratives of the book’s two main characters, Celestial and Roy, and one secondary character, Andre, as well as through a series of heartbreaking letters written by Celestial and Roy to one another. Set in the American south, in Atlanta and Louisiana, there’s an energy about the way that these characters move through the world that I can strongly identify with as a woman from South Carolina.
I think you can deduce from the back cover summary and the talk circulating Literary Twitter that Roy goes to prison; no spoiler alert there. What moves this book from just a story of what happens when another Black man is wrongly accused of a crime and sent to prison, is the deep, complicated and soul touching saga of Roy and Celestial’s marriage. Their relationship was, as I said before, on the cusp of blossoming or dissolving just before Roy is snatched away from the life they were slowly piecing together. Celestial says, “At the time, I was a newlywed, combing rice from my hair. Eighteen months in, I danced the line between wife and bride” (111). Celestial is an wildly talented artist, and her career skyrockets to a new level of success while Roy remains incarcerated. Roy was full of big dreams for the life that he would build for himself and his family; at the top of that list was a baby. We watch him collecting magazine clippings of stories about Celestial, reading articles on the internet about her shows, and struggling with feelings of pride over her success and frustration at what he feels like is complete erasure of him as her husband. Celestial struggles with remaining tethered to a man who has been absent from the real world for nearly five years. Andre, Celestial’s childhood friend and Roy’s Morehouse brother, is caught in between the two of them as his love for Celestial has an opportunity to grow into something deeper.
We also see how the families of these three characters orbit around the suns that are their children. Roy is from Louisiana and his parents still live there; as the story unravels, we are reminded that some family secrets don’t sit well in silence forever. Celestial’s parents remain surprisingly loyal to Roy, in spite of the class differences that seem to pressure him at the beginning of his and Celestial’s marriage. Andre turns to his father after years of distance when he finally needs to seek advice only his father can give.
Celestial’s Uncle Banks has been working on Roy’s case since his arrest on that fateful night in Louisiana, and when he finally secures his release from prison, it disturbs the careful, but unsteady equilibrium inside which Celestial, Roy, and Andre had found themselves existing. While she’s legally still his wife, Celestial is no longer Roy’s in the way she was before — did she ever belong to him, or anyone, to begin with? They each have to grapple with the truth of what time has done to them and their marriage.
One of my favorite lines in the book is from Celestial:
“God must know that at the bottom of my jewelry case, snapped into a felt box, is Roy’s missing tooth. A root woman would know what to do with it; even I, not talented in the unseen, can feel its blazing comet energy in the palm of my hand. But I have no way to harness this power or command it to my will.” (pg. 175)
There’s a subtle underlying message about her feeling of inability — unable to go back to the way things were, but equally unsure of how to move forward. She still feels the pull of Roy and their marriage even after all this time, but is faced with the question of how to actually make it work again.
You should run and pick up this book because it rips your heart out and forces you to study the intricacies of love and commitment in ways that few books I have come across have done before. It does not pick you up and carry you along gently; there is a bit of quiet violence here that speaks to the larger kind of violence against the Black family that is uniquely American.
Have you read this book? Let me know in the comments what you thought!