Tayari Jones’s fourth novel and Oprah’s 2018 Book Club pick, An American Marriage, is an emotional, powerful and gripping novel about love, family, and the criminal justice system and its injustices. It is an intimate portrait of love and how tragic events can cause that love to falter. How sometimes, love, just isn’t enough.
Synopsis from Goodreads: “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. Roy is arrested and sentenced to twelve years for a crime Celestial knows he didn’t commit. Though fiercely independent, Celestial finds herself bereft and unmoored, taking comfort in Andre, her childhood friend, and best man at their wedding. As Roy’s time in prison passes, she is unable to hold on to the love that has been her center. After five years, Roy’s conviction is suddenly overturned, and he returns to Atlanta ready to resume their life together.”
An American Marriage was my Book of the Month pick for February and I am so happy that I ended up choosing it. The writing was spectacular, the characters were rich, and the story was moving. Jones does not pull any punches, her writing hits you in the gut with emotion from all sides. I read this book in two days, and on the first day I started crying on page 35 and didn’t stop until I put the book down on page 138.
Told in part by letters between Roy and Celestial, and then told from the perspectives of the three main characters, this isn’t the story of courtroom drama, like one might expect when you find out one of the characters is wrongly committed of a crime, but one of the devastation of a family. Both Roy and Celestial are doing all of the right things, they are hard working, in love, and young, they still suffer the fate of having their lives dashed. An innocent man, confined to a prison cell for 12 years, the action of someone else derailing Roy’s life, leaving him powerless to stop what is going to happen – it is this that makes the slow burn of the book all the more powerful.
“Love makes a place in your life, it makes a place for itself in your bed. Invisibly, it makes a place in your body, rerouting all your blood vessels, throbbing right alongside your heart. When it’s gone, nothing is whole again.”
While this story is very much about the personal story of Celestial and Roy, you can not dismiss the racial context of the story. Roy is a black man, convicted wrongly of rape, and he loses his freedom for it. However, throughout the story, the characters mainly remain thankful that he is even alive, Celestial says at one point that there is “no appealing a cop’s bullet.” While even though Roy has done everything right, he has a good job, he is a good man, he makes good choices, even his family have lived good middle class lives, he recognizes that what happened to him could have happened to anyone, and when he says this, his friend, Andre responds with, “You think I don’t know that? I been black all my life.” Now released, he is set to become someone that society all too frequently casts aside and dismisses: the ex-convict. Although Jones makes it clear that this doesn’t have to be Roy’s future. That there is still hope.
This book moved me, and it stuck with me for the next couple days after I finished it. It still sticks with me now as I think about it. My conflicts with the characters and the decisions that were made, my heartbreak for them, and the overwhelming sense of hopelessness that I felt with Roy for most of the book. All I wanted was for these characters to find happiness, and I think Jones gives it to them, and for that I am grateful.
p.s. After I finished reading I immediately cast my perfect movie adaptation and it goes as follows:
Roy: Michael B Jordan
Celestial: Lupita Nyong’o
Andre: Daniel Kaluuya
It would be perfect. You’re welcome to the future production company that chooses to make this book into a film. I’ve done all your hard work for you.