All The Books I Can Read

1 girl….2 many books!

Thoughts On: An American Marriage by Tayari Jones

on November 8, 2018

An American Marriage 
Tayari Jones
Algonquin Books
2018, 308p
Read from my local library

Blurb {from the publisher/Goodreads.com}:

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.

That would have to be one of the briefest descriptions I’ve seen in a while.

I added this book to my Wishlist way back in January of this year. I think sometime around the end of last year/beginning of this I read some feature about books to look out for coming in 2018 and made a note of the ones I wanted to read. I do that all the time – I have a wishlist for each year on Goodreads but honestly, don’t ask me how many books make it off the wishlist to the read list. When I remembered my local library existed for requesting Man Booker shortlisted books, I decided to add this one in too.

Roy and Celestial have been married for about eighteen months. They are both college graduates, each striving to have more than the generation before them. They come from different backgrounds as well – Celestial with college educated parents and from Georgia and Roy from country Louisiana. Roy has a good job which allows Celestial to stay at home and work on her art, steadily making a name for herself. They have the usual challenges in a marriage – in-laws, the pressure to provide grandchildren, etc. But it’s when Roy is arrested and convicted for a crime he didn’t commit, that their marriage faces the ultimate test. Roy is sentenced to 12 years for a rape that his own wife gave him an alibi for.

A large part of this book is letters between Roy and Celestial that they exchange whilst he is in prison. The letters highlight the hopelessness of their situation and the struggle of being a couple separated by incarceration. Although Celestial knows Roy’s innocence and never doubts him (she was with him the entire time in question), she’s a young woman barely married who is suddenly almost like a widow and after a few years the strain of not having a husband longer than she had one is too much and she writes Roy a Dear John style letter to let him know that she will no longer consider herself married. For Roy, this is the ultimate kick in the teeth, because not only has he been denied his freedom but now his own wife has abandoned him at his lowest point.

Roy’s tale is horrible and his trial seemed little more than a farce. There’s no DNA evidence, his own wife takes the stand to claim he was with her, he has no motive, no criminal history, but he’s black. And the court system in southern America is awash with racism and corruption. I’m not at all qualified to comment on the racial profiling in crime or the treatment of young, black men in the system but we all read the news. There’s no shortage of high profile cases that shout out loud how it’s different for those young black men. How police shoot first and ask questions later, the lack of any real consequences for such shootings. The sheer numbers of those African Americans who are incarcerated. There’s no doubt that Roy is a victim of his appearance. Both Roy and his wife believe that his accuser was raped that night. And Roy had crossed paths with her earlier in the night. When she points him out, that’s it. He’s arrested and charged and sentenced with very little in the way of actual evidence. Celestial’s family is quite wealthy (new wealth, due to a patent her scientist father sold) and they keep the fund open for appeals, trying to get Roy justice all too late.

When Roy is finally released, his conviction quashed after serving five years, so much has happened. Celestial has moved on and with someone Roy knows. He wants his wife back but after five years apart, after the way prison has changed Roy and the way being left on her own has changed Celestial, is it going to be possible for them to find their way back to the before?

I really enjoyed this and the way it made me think. I love epistolary novels as well although this is not entirely epistolary. After that it’s split into three points of view – Roy’s, Celestial’s and her new lover. They’re three people who are just really struggling to get what they want – in some cases to even know what they want. Roy has such a firm view of the way things should be. Celestial is his wife and that’s that. She didn’t divorce him that whole time he was inside. His key still fits in the door after he gets out. I think for Roy, if he and Celestial can just make their way back, then he might be able to feel like things are going to get back to ‘normal’ for him – as much as they can be normal after being jailed for 5 years for something he didn’t do. Celestial is torn between the fact that she moved on when she thought the situation was hopeless but also her loyalty to Roy for what he has suffered. It’s messy and even ugly at times and honestly? I’m not gonna lie. I wanted Roy and Celestial to make it. To take back their relationship and erase all the damage that had been done, the ways they had been wronged. It would’ve felt like vindication. But even while I was thinking that, I was questioning if that was the best choice for them both, after everything that had happened.

One thing I really liked in this book was the relationship between Roy and his father (Big Roy). Just the way they connect, in that sort of awkward manly way that shows deep feeling but not outright declares it. Everything Big Roy did for Roy as a child, the ways in which he loved Roy’s mother. Those family dynamics were so wonderful – how they strive and sacrifice for each generation to have more than the one before it. I also liked Roy’s relationship with Celestial’s father (he exchanges a couple of letters with him in jail as well) and the way that evolved and their steadfast support of him during his time in prison. Everyone who knew Roy never questioned his innocence, even if they weren’t there like Celestial was.

This was well written and thought provoking. It’s not necessarily about the legalities of being wrongly incarcerated, I think it’s more about the collateral damage. What Roy missed out on, what he lost, whilst being inside. The way that some relationships fell apart and yet others didn’t. Or were perhaps made somewhat stronger for his experience.

8/10

Book #188 of 2018

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3 responses to “Thoughts On: An American Marriage by Tayari Jones

  1. This sounds like a really worthwhile read.

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