This week, I read An American Marriage by Tayari Jones. I was a bit worried going into this novel, I didn’t want to feel underwhelmed after all the hype. I needn’t have worried – I read it late into the night, without pause. I couldn’t bear to set it down because I had given too much of myself to the characters, and I knew they were going to break my heart.
Celestial and Roy have been married for about a year when Roy is imprisoned for a crime he didn’t commit. A woman was raped in her hotel room the night he was staying there (with his wife), but this woman doesn’t doubt that Roy raped her. In the time that he is in prison, his love story and his marriage become his touchstones, his strength; while for Celestial, the marriage becomes a burden she hadn’t signed up for. This was not what she’d imagined for herself, as an artistic black woman leading a charmed life for the most part. She didn’t think she would be waiting in line to meet her spouse, who was now just a statistic, yet another case of a black man being wronged by the system that was supposed to protect him. She moves on and finds companionship with Andre, her lifelong supporter and friend, but this doesn’t sit well with anyone. Not Roy, who wants his life (and wife) back, before it was snatched away. Not even Celestial’s father, who used to like Andre once. She is loyal, and sympathetic to her husband’s suffering, but must she suffer too?
The novel is written in the voices of the three main characters, so we fully understand their motivations and get to peek into their minds. Each voice is distinct, and nothing they do comes as a surprise because we were primed for it. The writing doesn’t push us to support one character over the other as well. They are flawed and perfectly so. Even the ending feels inevitable.
This novel looks into the incarceration of black men in America, but from an intimate point of view. It firmly establishes Roy’s innocence, but he still finds the need to reiterate his innocence to his mother and Celestial. This novel is about a marriage, and love, and more specifically the love of a black man and a black woman, which is held up to different standards, and must navigate treacherous territory often. It is also about the difficult choices that confront us, and how these choices and the freedom to make them are different for women and men. It is about being black in America, and all the different ways of being so.