Title: An American Marriage
Author: Tayari Jones
A captivating love story that is also a clear-eyed look at the effects of injustice in contemporary American life, Tayari Jones’s novel gorgeously chronicles three people who are bound together and separated by forces beyond their control.
As newlyweds, Celestial and Roy are living the American Dream. He is a young executive, and she is an artist on the brink of an exciting career. But after Roy’s incarceration for a crime he did not commit, Celestial, bereft and unmoored, turns to childhood friend and Roy’s best man, Andre, for support. As Roy’s absence drags on, Celestial faces soul-wrenching decisions about balancing loyalty with independence, desire with social and familial expectations, and what is right with what is fair — and to whom.
Gripping, timely, and masterful, An American Marriage looks deep into the souls of people who must reckon with the past while moving forward — with hope and pain — into the future.
My Biggest Takeaways: Different Kinds of Incarceration
I’m not well-acquainted with the work of Tayari Jones, but I had heard a lot of good things about her most recent novel, An American Marriage. I found this book to be very captivating and dramatic, and a pertinent look at the different types, as well as the expansive effects, of incarceration.
Roy Hamilton, who is wrongfully imprisoned for a crime he did not commit, battles literal incarceration. Tayari Jones reminds us of the skewed relationship between Black people, specifically Black men, and the American criminal justice system, as Roy never really stands a chance once he is falsely accused. A businessman on the rise, Roy’s imprisonment ends his climb up the corporate ladder; a college graduate, Roy sees the uselessness of his titles as he is tasked with the equivalent of field labor that nets little to no money. Whatever Roy and his wife Celestial’s plans were for starting a family are put on hold, since Roy dreads being an absentee father like his biological father was. As his life stalls, the world continues to turn, and he misses out on Celestial’s rise to fame in the artistic world. And even when the federal courts step in to overturn his long prison sentence, he struggles to adjust to a world that has moved on without him. Even his marriage — the one part of his old life that he was hoping would still be there for him by the time he got out — seems to have faded as well, and Roy fights desperately to hold onto this little shred of his old life. Through Roy, Jones shows the readers the plight of Black men in the age of mass incarceration, as well as the struggles of those that reenter society —how they struggle to adjust, how they struggle to find work, how they struggle to recover parts of themselves that they lose behind bars.
Roy’s wife Celestial Davenport appears to be battling what I’ll call “matrimonial” incarceration. Early on, we see that Celestial appears to be disillusioned with the “restrictive” aspects of marriage; she tells the wedding officiant to remove the word “obey” from her wedding vows and consistently reiterates — to Roy, Andre, her parents, etc. — that she doesn’t “belong” to anybody. Celestial’s independent attitude comes into conflict with what many of the characters (namely Roy) describe as “duties” prescribed to a “wife.” Roy’s imprisonment interrupts their marriage before it even really got started (they’d only been married for about a year and a half) and all-in-all the time Roy spends in prison is more than the amount of time he had even known Celestial. She begins to feel “imprisoned” by marital obligation — obligation to remain loyal to someone she can’t actually be with and hold down a marriage that seems too young and too new to survive such a long interruption. When her “duties” to Roy are challenged by her involvement with her childhood friend Andre, she tries to toe a line between loyalty and independence, wanting to support Roy financially and emotionally, but “not as his wife.” This, of course, breeds drama and conflict, which Tayari Jones uses to pose questions about marital expectations and what the limits of faithfulness might be.
(5 stars out of 5)
Did you read this novel? If so, did you enjoy it? What elements of the story resonated with you the most?