An American Marriage by Tayari Jones

Mar 1, 2019

33590210
If I had to choose one word to describe this book, it would be wrenching.


Gut wrenching. Emotionally wrenching. Heart wrenching.

Roy and Celestial have only been married a year-and-a-half when their lives change suddenly and drastically one night. They went to Roy's hometown to visit his parents, and their motel room door was forced open in the middle of the night and they were dragged from their bed. A woman a few doors down claimed that Roy broke into her room and raped her.

But Roy is innocent. He knows it, and, more importantly, his wife knows it. She hadn't even fallen asleep yet when their door burst open.

But the trial proceeds quickly. Unfortunately, Roy is a black man being accused by a white woman, and the timing and the circumstances are not in his favor. Roy is convicted without proper evidence. He is sentenced to prison for twelve years. (Side note: it never explicitly says that Roy's accuser is white. I assumed she was because her word was given more credibility than Celestial's testimony, but some of the women in my book club assumed she was black, so it was somewhat ambiguous. Regardless, Roy was convicted.)

At first, Celestial and Roy are unfailingly loyal to one another, pledging their devotion until either Roy serves out his sentence or his attorney (Celestial's Uncle Banks) gets him acquitted. But as time marches on, Celestial goes on living, and other things (and people) move into take Roy's place. After three years, she writes that she is done with their marriage; she has to move on; she wants to get a divorce. Except . . .months pass, and she never files for a divorce.

When Roy is finally released after five years, he doesn't know what he'll find and if it's even possible for a marriage that was still just in its infancy to be able to survive such a tragedy.

The story is told from three perspectives: Roy's, Celestial's, and Andre's (oh, I didn't mention him? He and Celestial have been friends ever since they were children. I'm sure you can guess why he's in the story . . .). Their voices are distinct, raw, and vivid. I loved the writing so much, and listening to the narration by Sean Crisden and Eisa Davis only enhanced it.

I won't pretend to know what it takes for a novel to move from best-seller to classic, or if the two are even related. But with the words still fresh enough to be ringing in my ears, this feels like the type that might last. I could see it being studied in literature classes decades from now. It just seems to have all of the right pieces to make something that's deep and mulit-layered and will keep giving each time you read it.

That said, I didn't love the ending. And not because it wasn't a happily ever after kind of ending. Celestial and Roy both move forward with their lives. Celestial's seemed natural and expected (probably because a big chunk of the book had been pointing that way), but Roy's seemed unlikely and maybe even fantastical. I'm not going to give it away here, but I'd be interested to know what you thought about it if you've read it. (As another aside, discussing this with the other ladies in my book club actually helped me resolve some of the issues I had with the ending, and I'm not as skeptical as I was when I first finished it.)

This was my book club's pick for February. We always try to select a book for this month that will have something to do with love and relationships. We've had some misses over the years, but this one was spot on perfect. Although there are some underlying themes of racism and equality, the heart of the book is about relationships and what happens to those relationships when life throws its punches.

At one point, Celestial says: "Marriage is like grafting a limb onto a tree trunk. You have the limb, freshly sliced, dripping sap, and smelling of springtime. And then you have the mother tree stripped of her protective bark, gouged and ready to receive this new addition." Part of the problem for Celestial and Roy was that their limb and trunk hadn't been together for long enough before the graft was put under extreme stress.

But back to my original word: wrenching. I became so deeply invested in the characters, and it was painful to watch all of the choices and circumstances play out and just wonder, "What if . . . ?" What if Roy hadn't been convicted? What if he had gotten out sooner? What if he and Celestial had been married longer first? What if? What if? What if?

It was those plaguing questions that kept me listening, and the unsatisfactory answers that kept me thinking long after I finished.

Content note: This is a heavy story. There is some language, including the F-word. There is also infidelity, including one descriptive scene that I chose to skip over.

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