An American Marriage
By Tayari Jones
Read Jan 2019
I devoured this book. It’s really good.
In the first section of the book Roy and Celeste, through their first person narratives, introduce the reader to them, their views of their spouse, and their recollections of the fateful weekend trip to visit Roy’s parents. Roy was born and raised in Louisiana but attends college, meets and marries Celeste, and makes a home with her in her home town of Atlanta. When they visit Roy’s parents, they choose to stay in a local motel. They are woken by police that night and Roy is arrested for raping another guest in the motel. Although falsely accused, Roy is convicted and sent to prison in Louisiana for 12 years. Celeste returns home to Atlanta. Life disrupted….
The second section of the book is presented through letters Roy and Celeste write to each other while Roy is in prison. Through this approach we have a very intimate view of them and their marriage. We hear exactly and fully what Roy and Celeste say to each other through this medium, their only route of regular communication given the distance between Roy’s prison and Atlanta (which results in few “live” visits). In his first letter, Roy indicates he thinks he last wrote a letter when assigned a French pen-pal in high school and “That whole thing lasted ten minutes.” He knows with certainty it’s the first time he’s written a love letter.
In the meantime, Celeste’s uncle works to free Roy and he is eventually successful. Roy leaves prison after 5 years hoping to “return home”. But home is not as he left it. In the third section, Jones returns to first person narratives by Roy and Celeste. A third voice, Andre, also participates and alternates with the other two. Andre was a college friend who has remained part of Celeste’s life while Roy was imprisoned. It seemed to this reader that Jone’s writing made the pace of the alternation of the three voice-lines hastening dramatically as the three characters reach a point of, potentially, no return.
The title of Jone’s book is “An American Marriage” and it is a story of a marriage– one that has been disrupted. She requires the reader to face this disruption—the immediate terror of police breaking into the motel room, the disbelief that Roy could be found guilty of a crime he didn’t commit, the lost years of his imprisonment. In one of Celeste’s early letters she indicates “Uncle Banks is preparing the first appeal. He reminds me it could be worse. Many people have run-ins with the law and they don’t live to tell the tale. There’s no appealing a cop’s bullet. So at least there’s that but it’s not much.”
Much of the story is universal–disapproving in-laws, a husbands’ wandering-eye, a couple’s first year of marriage when they are trying to figure out how they will live together as a married couple. Many novels are available that deal with these topics written across many centuries by countless authors. But Jones also provides the reader some insights that are different. The characters are black. Roy had a scholarship to Morehouse. Celeste graduated from Spelman but spent her first year at Howard University. They are upwardly mobile and they expect to be “rich black”. The disruption that impacts their marriage is one that traumatized Roy, and his family, through a system that is far from color-blind. This reader got a different view of life in the US through their voices and their reactions to this disruption. Jones provides us distinctly unique characters whose feelings were realistically painted and which certainly impacted this reader. I look forward to discussing this book with others.