I first found An American Marriage (2018) by Tayari Jones on NPR’s Best Books of 2018 List. It was also an Oprah’s book club selection. I wasn’t quite sure what to expect, but I was pleasantly surprised at the readability and relatability of this story. I read this quite a while ago, but I still remember the characters and their lives very clearly.
Roy and Celestial have been married for a year and a half. The two love each other, but their relationship has always had some heat and friction. When they go visit Roy’s mother, they choose to stay in a hotel instead of trying to fit in at his parent’s house. When Roy and Celestial arrive at the hotel, they argue, make up, and are later pulled from their bed by the police.
After their argument at the hotel, Roy had helped an older woman bring ice to her room. She is later raped, and she mistakenly thinks that Roy is the culprit. There is a trial, and Roy is sentenced to twelve years in prison. An American Marriage is about how Roy’s prison sentence affects his relationship with Celestial. To those who know him, his innocence is not a question. The effects stem only from being unexpectedly pulled out of his life and family for years.
Jones delves a little into the upbringing and childhood of her characters. In addition, this novel alternates perspectives, often using letters written to or from jail. Part of what makes this book so memorable is how much I felt for each character, even when their needs are diametrically opposed.
After two years in jail, Celestial sends Roy a letter telling him that she can’t be married to him anymore. The reader does not find out immediately, but Celestial has fallen in love with her childhood neighbor, Andre.
The injustice of innocent Black men in prison adds another layer to Celestial and Roy’s feelings. Roy’s story is pure tragedy. If he had not been falsely accused, tried, and convicted, it is likely that he and Celestial would be a family unit, married with children. Instead, this separation, pulled them away from each other before their connection could be solidified–if it could at all. In addition, Celestial feels guilt from falling in love with another man, but especially from leaving her man when he’s sitting, innocent in jail. Some people in her family accept this decision, but others, like her father, cannot accept her disloyalty. She feels the least she can do is stay true to him after what happened to him, but she can’t change her feelings. It might be easy to blame Celestial, here, but she is also an innocent party to everything that’s happened, and I related more to her than any other character in the book.
I found this book very moving. The central plot point is what happens to a family when an innocent Black man is thrown in jail. But from the beginning, it is a much more personal story about love and commitment. Definitely recommended.
You can find all of my reviews on my blog.