Review: An American Marriage by Tayari Jones


Newlyweds Celestial and Roy are the embodiment of both the American Dream and the New South. He is a young executive and she is an artist on the brink of an exciting career. But as they settle into the routine of their life together, they are ripped apart by circumstances neither could have imagined. In this deft exploration of love, loyalty, race, justice, and both Black masculinity and Black womanhood in 21st century America, Jones achieves that most-illusive of all literary goals: the Great American Novel.



RATING: ☆★☆★☆

This book stung so hard I almost looked for the cut of it on my skin.

It’s the kind of novel that sinks its teeth into you. One that enkindles in you such a brief and yet so excruciating pain. One that is so vivid the first glimpse of reality would shock you, and you would emerge from its thrall dazed, half dreaming, dizzy, and for a moment, aching, blinking, parched, unreal, everything else…fades away. One that changes you, leaves you a little different by the time you are done. But above all, one that reminds you that humans really are so often this way—inexplicable, restless, unyielding, and unfathomable.

In sharp, vivid language that dwells on ugliness and beauty in equal measure, Jones explores, with soul-baring poignancy, the effects of a wrongful conviction on a young African-American couple in a haunting, compelling and deeply humane work of fiction. There are few novels so willing to give up their souls, but Jones’ sincerity sprinkles the text like sequins and her words are the skip of a stone across a lake, forming ripples and ripples of emotion.

Being the victim of a wrongful conviction is one of those impossible things that happen in places so impossibly far away from where we are that they might as will not exist. But to Roy and Celestial, it came crashing down, as real as a reflection in the mirror.

Roy and Celestial’s life stretched out indescribably precious and sweet before them, with the years laid out ahead and the choices still there to be made: him as a rising corporate executive, and her building a portfolio as an artist. But Roy’s wrongful imprisonment was the rupture of the small, brave hope growing inside their marriage.

Much of the story is told through the letters Roy and Celestial send each other during his incarceration. We witness as the fine grains of their relationship begin to course between their fingers. We watch as they try to cling on to a kernel of hope. But the years have stretched Celestial thin, leaving her waiting, trapped and trembling on the borders of her own life, and Roy’s life was getting white around the edges and sometimes, it seemed that he had no past, no memories, that he had been, for too long, on this stretch of tenebrous, hissing road. Neither could guess at the shape of an as-yet-uncharted future looming out of the fog.

When Roy wins his release, it was all he had wanted to hear for five years. But freedom had never tasted so much like ashes. While Roy was despeteraly clinging to the hopeless longing for lost happiness, Celestial has begun forging a new life with her childhood best friend, Andre. Something has been lost in the long gulf of Roy and Celestial’s separation, and they don’t know whether they want it back or not.

An American Marriage” is a viscerally potent exploration of a difficult marriage that has tension and fraction stemming from good people trying their best, growing and changing and learning, and just as often, failing and screwing up or making the wrong choices. Two people, both crumpled and cast-aside, exhausted from their own efforts to become something more than a consequence, and who will always be married where it counted—in the horrors they had shared.

Jones lures you into Roy and Celestial’s lives only to do terrible, wonderful things to your head and heart. Reading this book, I was struck sometimes by the senseless idea that everything around me was made of glass. I was afraid to breathe, afraid to move. Dread lanced every moment, and my head was a spinning top of new and uncertain possibilities. I felt my heart limping in my chest as Celestial and Roy walked the floor of their relationship like tightrope performers, placing each foot gingerly in front of the other, testing for weaknesses, waiting for the moment when the whole thing eventually gives way.

It would’ve been so easy to call sides—choose a character and place the weight of the blame on their shoulders. But Jones forces the reader to relentlessly ponder what Celestial and Roy really owe each other, as “An American Marriage” corkscrews into a tighter and tighter coil. With every page, we see various elements of the characters’ personalities which hitherto we had only glimpsed, but which had orchestrated and magnified themselves to a startling level of potency. Roy and Celestial—and even Andre—had made so many mistakes that they could not find their way back through their tangle to the first one. Roy had no words in their common language to explain that he is punctured and torn and needed someone to suture him back together, nor did Celestial, who felt herself wither a bit more inside way down deep where the light never reaches, and that might just be the final nail in the coffin they’ve been building between them.

I felt torn in some way, grappled with the implications of the decisions the characters made. I wanted to step outside their heads and hope I would see from some new vantage something simple and understandable. But nothing about this story is supposed to be so stark, or so simple.

A tight ache closed around my heart for Roy who’s been robbed of something he could never get back. Roy created a door between him and Celestial and he believed he could come back and knock and count on it being opened, and I couldn’t fault him for letting his mind lie to him because his world was more comfortable that way, because it hung together better that way. But I couldn’t fault Celestial for anything either. I couldn’t bring myself to resent the “us” that glimmered between her and Andre. Time is a funny thing—it doesn’t forgive the things that are beyond our control. And life is a river that cannot be called back once it leaves its banks. What had been taken from Celestial could never amount to what had been taken from Roy, but is it selfishness to refuse to wait in an agony of wondering? Or is it selfishness to expect one to wait in the first place?

Ultimately, this is what holds steady throughout the novel: Jones gives us a truth that is messy and nuanced, complex, and sometimes contradictory, and yields no easy answers.

At its core, “An American Marriage” is a love story, but reading this book, it’s hard to escape its condemnation of a deeply flawed system of justice. “What happened to me could happen to anybody,” Roy tells Andre who shoots back, “You think I don’t know that? I been black all my life.” Roy might have survived a mordant injustice, but the shadow fell very dark on him. When justice was eventually served, it was a kind of escape, but it mocked freedom. It was not going to bring back Roy’s lost years. It was not going to change the past. But it will forever define it. Jones tells you that maybe it doesn’t have to define the future too. Roy’s present might be overlaid with past sorrow, but he was free, and in the end, in that moment, that place, that perch upon the edge of the world, his view went on forever.

I cannot recommend this book highly enough.

3 thoughts on “Review: An American Marriage by Tayari Jones

  1. Wow! I’ve seen this book but didn’t know much what it was about. Your review is amazing and I’m going to buy/read this book now!


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