AN AMERICAN MARRIAGE
Think of marriage as a lovely pond, surrounded by flora and fauna. Then think of someone throwing a rather large rock into the pond. Can you see the ripples begin from where the rock falls? And the ripples? Can you see them moving ever-outward until the entire pond has felt the effect of that rock?
The marriage is between Roy and Celestial, maybe not perfectly matched, but crazy mad about each other and looking forward to the rest of their lives together. Then, early in the marriage, the unthinkable happens, the rock is thrown, and the ripples begin. Think of the many things capable of disrupting marriages in ways we could never imagine. Many marriages fail as the result of a child’s death. A military spouse might return home from war terribly injured. A husband or wife could be permanently maimed in an auto accident. Such events would likely affect not only the married couple but their parents, their friends. Try to imagine what might happen if the rock thrown is a false accusation of rape. The charge moves swiftly through the justice system with a guilty verdict and a sentence of twelve years incarceration.
Tayari Jones introduces us to characters with whom we can easily identify. Roy and Celestial first meet in college, introduced by Celestial’s childhood friend, Andre, the boy next door. 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, Roy’s from a small town in Louisiana, and Celestial’s from Atlanta, Georgia. Celestial’s parents are both professionals, and Roy’s parents worked hard so that their only son could go to college. Celestial’s lawyer uncle works to overturn Roy’s conviction.
The author depicts family scenes often humorous and self-deprecating. Both before and after Roy’s conviction, all such scenes illustrate a desire for what is best for their children. Except for the circumstances giving rise to Roy’s rush through court and conviction, there is no “otherness” to identify this black family’s suffering as any different from a white family’s.
For the first two years of Roy’s incarceration, 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 childhood friend, brings Celestial more solace and comfort than Roy’s letters from jail. The fact that life continues, or not, outside prison, makes the death of Roy’s mother while he is incarcerated all the more painful.
Chapter by chapter, Jones brings her novel to life by telling the story in the voices of Roy, Celestial, and Andre. These interchanging points of view strengthen our respect for and empathy with each character. As Celestial’s career soars and Roy’s life is on hold, we, nevertheless, root for the marriage. Nobody is untouched by incarceration. I won’t say how the novel ends. Is Roy’s conviction overturned? Does the marriage survive?
In real life, bad things happen to good people, but love, loyalty, stamina, and a bedrock of forgiveness is worth holding onto. An American Marriage holds on to a whole lot more. – Sunny Solomon
Also available by Tayari Jones: Leaving Atlanta, The Untelling, Silver Sparrow.