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An American Marriage

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Think of marriage as a lovely pond, surrounded by flora and fauna (family and friends). Then think of someone throwing a rather large rock into the pond. Can you see the water move almost violently away from where the rock falls? And the ripples? Can you see them moving ever outward until the entire pond has been affected?

The marriage in Tayari Jones’ novel is between Roy and Celestial who may not be perfectly matched but are crazy mad about each other and looking forward to the rest of their lives together. Roy and Celestial first meet at Morehouse College, introduced by Celestial’s childhood friend, Andre, the boy next door. Roy is from Eloe, a small town in Louisiana. Celestial is from Atlanta, Georgia. Celestial’s parents are both professionals. Roy’s parents struggled so that their only son could go to college.

Then, early in the marriage, on a family visit to Eloe, the unthinkable happens. The rock, or as Roy calls it, “a meteor” crashes into their pond and the waves begin. Think of the many things capable of disrupting our lives in ways we could never imagine. Many marriages fail as a result of a child’s death. A military spouse might return home from war permanently injured. A husband or wife could be maimed in an auto accident. Such events would likely affect not only the married couple but their children, their parents, their friends. Now try to imagine what might happen if the rock thrown is a false accusation of rape. The charge against Roy moves swiftly through the Louisiana justice system with a guilty verdict and a sentence of twelve years’ incarceration.

Jones handles the story by allowing the reader to hear it told in the three most import voices. It begins with Roy and then Celestial and then Andre and for the entire novel these voices come in and out of sequence, each telling told from the heart so that the characters become immensely believable with emotions that are easily recognized. These are characters to care about.

The families of both Roy and Celestial strongly believe in Roy’s innocence. In Roy’s voice, we get to know both sets of parents, Celestial’s lawyer uncle works to overturn Roy’s conviction.

Family scenes are often depicted with humor and self-deprecation. Both before and after Roy’s conviction, all such scenes illustrate that these parent’s want only what is best for their married children. Except for the circumstances giving rise to Roy’s rush through the courts and then his immediate conviction, there is no sense of “otherness” to identify the suffering of these two black families. Jones’ depiction of the emotional upheaval faced by these two families is without color.

For the first two years of Roy’s incarceration in Louisiana, Celestial and both sets of parents visit Roy regularly. But Celestial, an emerging textile artist, finds the distance between Atlanta and the penitentiary in Louisiana more difficult when her art takes her to New York, where Andre, the boy next door, brings her more solace and comfort than Roy’s letters from jail. Life outside a prison does not stop.

Celestial’s Uncle continues to fight to have Roy’s conviction overturned. While imprisoned, Roy has suffered the death of his mother and also faces the possibility of his marriage crumbling under the weight of his incarceration. The power of imprisonment is that it leaves nobody, inside or out, untouched. In real life, bad things happen to good people, despite love, loyalty, or a deeply held desire for things to be otherwise. I won’t say how the novel ends. Is Roy’s conviction overturned? Does their marriage survive? I can tell you this – Tayari Jones has written a novel with characters we root for and goals worth holding onto, no matter the odds. – Sunny Solomon

Also available by Tayari Jones: Silver Sparrow; The Untelling; Leaving Atlanta

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