Friday, May 18, 2018

Contemporary Fiction: An American Marriage by Tayari Jones

Many will recognize today's book as the most recent selection for Oprah's Book Club. An American Marriage by Tayari Jones explores the life of two newlyweds whose young marriage is struck by tragedy. Now they must navigate the consequences of a situation they did not create, and do their best to hold themselves and their marriage together.

The Situation: Roy and Celestial are married only a year and a half when they are suddenly, and brutally, forced to be apart. During a visit to Roy's hometown, he is falsely accused of a crime and ends up being sentenced to 12 years in prison. It is a devastating blow to their young marriage, which was certainly not perfect, but they were making it work. With him in Louisiana, and her back at home in Atlanta where she is a successful up and coming artist, the two write each other letters (not emails) to stay connected in between visits. It is not easy of course, especially when the letters turn to more difficult matters such as Roy's desire to have children; the opinions of both of their parents; the continued efforts of Celestial's uncle for Roy's release; and the closeness of her best friend Andre, something Roy has never been completely at ease with. Twelve years is a long time, and at about three years in, Celestial says she cannot do it anymore and stops visiting and writing, leaving Roy feeling more lost and alone than ever.

The Problem: What is supposed to make Roy's life better ends up being the thing that makes everything more complicated for everyone. When Celestial's uncle manages to get Roy's conviction overturned, he is set free seven years early, but the only person that seems ready for him to come home is his father. And though Celestial may have formally ended things two years before, she never sent Roy divorce papers, something he manages to hold onto as a hope that he can still save his marriage. But he does not know that she has moved on, having found comfort in her best friend, a relationship that no one seems to approve of but them. The confrontation between Roy and Celestial is inevitable, and everyone will have some serious decisions to make. And as the story slowly moves toward this interaction, the big question becomes whether these two will stay together, or if simply too much time has passed. 

Genre, Themes, History: This is a fiction novel set mostly in present day southern U.S. Roy is from a small town in Louisiana called Eloe, while Celestial is from Atlanta. The narrative is split almost evenly between the two states as Roy's parents still live in Eloe, and this is also the state where he will end up being incarcerated, while Celestial stays in their home in Atlanta, the city where she grew up. Of course, the plot line involves a black man being falsely accused of a heinous crime and consequently sentenced to twelve years in prison, something that happens more often in this country than anyone cares to think about. The time in prison causes Roy to lose his freedom, his job as a promising executive, his sense of who he is, and finally, his wife and what could be their growing family. But the book does not dwell too much on that stuff, though it is there. The real issue involves where Roy and Celestial's marriage stands once he is released. She told him she was done with their relationship, but never drew up divorce papers. And when she comes face to face with the early release of the man who is still her husband, Celestial's fierce independence almost evaporates when she must reconcile herself between the man she married, and the man who has been there for her since Roy was sent to jail. It is not a cut and dry situation, no matter how much anyone tries to claim it is. If anything, it is an issue created by terrible circumstances, and now Roy and Celestial have to deal with it.

My Verdict: This is a book that is well-written, but hard to read. The characters are often unlikable, but still interesting and relatable. And the situation seems hopeless at many different points, but I still found myself turning the page, wanting everything to work out. Jones presents a situation with no easy solution, but it is incredibly easy for everyone except Roy and Celestial to say what needs to happen. And while I appreciate the complexity of the issue, I had a hard time with Celestial's willingness to take a back seat when dealing with the ensuing conflict. Before Roy went to prison, she seemed brave, independent, and outspoken. But when faced with a difficult decision, she becomes passive and quiet, and hopeful that someone else will take care of it for her. What Jones does so well is write the situation in a way so that no one is presented as the villain or the hero. These are simply two flawed people who attempted to start a life together before things went horribly wrong. Ultimately, it is a problem that none of these characters created, which is what makes the whole thing that much more cruel.        

Favorite Moment: This may be a bit of a no brainer, but I pick when Celestial's uncle is able to get Roy's conviction overturned and he is subsequently released.

Favorite Character: Big Roy is a man who adopted another man's son as his own, and gave him not only his last name, but his first name as well. He is also a man who took on the task of burying his own wife, despite professional gravediggers standing by.

Favorite Quote: "I respect his ambition; I had mine. But you don't want to spend the rest of your life with a man who has something to prove." - Celestial's father before she married Roy. 

Recommended Reading: Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward tells a different kind of story also about a southern family torn apart when one spouse is incarcerated.

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