Tuesday, April 23, 2019

Review: An American Marriage by Tayari Jones

This book has won so many awards and received so many accolades that it hardly needs my voice. This is a good thing because despite really loving previous books by Jones, I did not love this one. It is every bit as well written as the others but I could not connect with it, could not understand or sympathize with the characters, and found myself wanting to lecture one of them for pure selfishnesss and poor choices. Not a good combination to be sure!

Celestial and Roy have only been married for a year when Roy is wrongfully accused and convicted of raping a woman in a hotel. As he serves his sentence, wife Celestial is serving an unjust sentence of her own, stripped of her husband and the life they had planned. Celestial is a child of privilege, having parents who made it through hard work into the African American upper middle class in Atlanta and who have given their only daughter everything she ever wanted. Roy was raised in a small Alabama town with loving parents but not a lot of money. Together Roy and Celestial are in the black professional class and have good prospects for the future until Roy's accuser is believed over his well-spoken but stiff wife who was with him the entire evening in question. All of a sudden, their lives are completely derailed. Roy goes to prison and Celestial eventually starts a boutique filled with art piece dolls that she's made. Roy has no choice but to wait to be reunited with Celestial but how long can she wait, especially with her life-long best friend André waiting in the wings?

Much of this is told through letters, perfect considering the distance between Celestial and Roy both in terms of physical geography and in terms of legal status. Most of the letters are between the two of them but there are some others interspersed as well to complete the picture. Roy is probably the least complicated character because he must endure the loss of everything he cares about, his liberty, his wife, his marriage. Although Celestial's uncle is trying to get him out, he essentially has no recourse once he is declared guilty. He is honest about his emotions, the rage and the despair he faces, and about the pieces of his life where he was not entirely free of blame in their marriage. Celestial, however, was entirely unsympathetic to me. When Roy is sentenced to years in prison, Celestial is also sentenced to a life she never wanted or chose. But she had the ability to move on without considering Roy too terribly much. Her frequent assertion that she and Roy barely knew each other when he was arrested sounded like nothing more than a flimsy excuse to move on. It's not like they met each other the day they married so she certainly had more than that one year to go on in terms of his character and their relationship. The fact that her parents supported her, making her dreams come true and shielding her from any other hardship, made her even less sympathetic since she suffered only the smallest of emotional hardships during Roy's incarceration. In fact, Jones' creation for her of a doll making career, even if it was "art," just further infantilized her as a character. In leaning so heavily on André, the friend whose advances she'd long ago spurned, she took the easy, selfish road.  There's a revelation late in the book where Roy gave her permission to do something she wanted to do anyway so that she wouldn't feel all the guilt herself that I just can't accept of a woman who truly loved her wrongfully incarcerated husband and intended to create a long term life with him.  As for André, well he's milquetoast with Celestial and if you consider him Roy's friend, well, with friends like that...  The only character I actually liked in here? Celestial's father, who shoots straight with her and mirrors many of my thoughts on the one big life choice he knows of her making.

I spent most of the book frustrated and not at the right things. Yes, I was frustrated by a justice system that failed this man so spectacularly but I also wanted to yank Celestial by the hair and tell her to get herself straight and do the right thing. Jones is an amazing wordsmith and she highlights some really important, broken aspects of our culture but I was too annoyed by the narrative to pay as much attention to the larger message as I should have. Obviously others, not least of which many prize committees, entirely disagree with me. Maybe you will too. In fact, I hope you will because I don't wish my reading experience on anyone else.

Thanks to LibraryThing Early Reviewers for sending me a copy of the book to review.

1 comment:

  1. It seems like there are people who don't think of marriage as an especially important bond, at least not as much as others do.


I have had to disable the anonymous comment option to cut down on the spam and I apologize to those of you for whom this makes commenting a chore. I hope you'll still opt to leave me your thoughts. I love to hear what you think, especially so I know I'm not just whistling into the wind here at my computer.

Popular Posts