Author: Tayari Jones
Publisher: Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill
Publishing Date: 2018
Number of Pages: 308
Genre: Romance, Contemporary
“Newlyweds Celestial and Roy are the embodiment of both the American Dream and the New South. He is a young business 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 suddenly ripped apart by circumstances neither could have imagined when, while visiting Roy’s parent in their small Louisiana town, Roy is arrested and sentenced to twelve years in prison for a crime Celestial knows he didn’t commit.
Though fiercely independent, Celestial finds herself unmoored, taking comfort in Andre, her childhood friend and Roy’s best man at her wedding. As Roy’s time in prison passes, she is unable to hold on to the love that has been her center. When, after five years, Roy’s conviction is suddenly overturned and he returns to Atlanta ready to resume their life together; Celestial is faced with a soul-wrenching decision: whether to let go or to try to rebuild a marriage that has lost its underpinnings.”
At the start of the year, I made a list of books that I am most looking forward to. One of the books that made it on my list is Tayari Jones’ An American Marriage. The blurb surrounding the book made it enticing, hence, the inclusion in my last. Thankfully, it was relatively easy availing a copy of the book unlike the others in my list, e.g. Ismail Kadare’s A Girl in Exile or Sharon Bala’s The Boat People.
Before letting the book gather dust, I immediately read it upon purchase. But I was in for a surprise. it wasn’t what I expected it to be.
An American Marriage is about, well, an American marriage, Roy and Celestial’s that is. Both were born in the Deep South, he in Louisiana, she in Atlanta, and met in university. The narrative begins in the present, relating both the challenges and the triumphs Roy and Celestial encountered in the infancy of their marriage. Their marriage had their ups and downs but everything was going fine until the day they visited Roy’s parents. Roy got wrongly accused of perpetrating something he didn’t do. He was sentenced to twelve years of incarceration.
Due to Roy’s absence, the dynamics of Roy and Celestial’s marriage began to shift. Roy kept clinging on the hopes that once he got released, Celestial will still be there for him. But something in Celestial begun to change. She started questioning whether her feelings for Roy still stands the same. Roy’s sentence got shortened and he was in for a surprise.
Roy has a passive persona while Celestial possessed otherwise. This disparity in their dispositions is what made their story interesting, at the beginning. As the story goes on, their dispositions begun to transform as well. Celestial is the embodiment of the modern American woman – empowered and independent. She was decisive and very sure of herself. Roy was the opposite. He relied on his wife. In the end, their positions switched. Celestial became the one who is uncertain, the one who is conflicted while Roy was the one who was more certain of himself.
With the foregoing, I can’t help but dislike Celestial’s superfluous personality. Yes, I am cognizant that distance can either make a relationship stronger or can cause rift and in the world of fiction, it can go either way. But Celestial was simply the weakest link. She, of all the three main characters, is a caricature and it was a surprise because the book was written by a woman. Beyond her indecisiveness, her inconsistency was appalling. But it wasn’t only Celestial that I had difficulties connecting with. I had trouble connecting with all of them.
On a more positive note, I liked the way Jones weaved the complexities about being Black American. It is one of the book’s highest achievements. The book being set in the Deep South, shed light on racial discrimination, even though we are living in what is touted as “modern times”. In the book’s case, the situation portrayed focused in the criminal court system . Racial discrimination and inequality is somehow a prerequisite amongst Deep South writers. Some did the subject some justice. However, in An American Marriage’s case, I found it lacking. It could use some tidying up on the edges to make the narrative seamless.
But the book’s greatest shortfall is its lack of overall impact. Whereas other books are relentless in their unpredictability, An American Marriage is the complete opposite. The story’s predictability made me cringe at numerous points in the story. The plot twists and the odd curveballs are easily anticipated. Halfway through the story, I was looking for that pivotal twist that would change my perspective of the book, to make it worth my while. The ultimate plot twist did happen at the culmination of the book. But it was a little too late.
If there is one thing that worked for the book is its simplistic and straightforward approach. It was so straightforward you can barely notice the shift in narrators. It made the story easier to understand and appreciate. The characters’ nuances are so subtle you can easily discern the sentimentality of their actions. The book stirs you emotionally but it didn’t do enough to open those proverbial floodgates.
In its way, An American Marriage is a satisfying read. It neither sugarcoated nor deceived the readers. It is simple and it worked. However, the story could have done with some sprinkle of serious editing. The characters needed some firming up. It did, however, stir the readers into reflecting more about the meaning of love, marriage and human nature, especially their unpredictability. I had high hopes for the book but it ultimately didn’t work for me.
Recommended for those looking for quick reads, for those who prefer simple writing, for those who are looking for a connection with Deep South literature, those who want to dig into the mess of marriage.
Not recommended for those who are looking for well-written narrative, for those who dislike shallow character building and those who dislike first person narratives.
About the Author
(Photo by Wikipedia) Born on November 30, 1970, Tayari Jones began to take writing seriously when she was studying at Spelman College.
Her first work was Leaving Atlanta (2002) which is a three-voiced narrative set against the backdrop of the infamous Atlanta Child Murders of 1979-81. This was followed by The Untelling (2005) and Silver (2011). Her latest work, An American Marriage was published in 2018 and was picked by Oprah Winfrey for her Book Club.
She is currently a professor at Rutgers University Newark campus where she is a member of the MFA faculty.