REVIEW: An American Marriage by Tayari Jones

In brief: Celestial and Roy are newlyweds going places. But their plan changes dramatically when Roy is gaoled for a crime that he didn’t commit. Celestial moves on, but when Roy is released early, he’s keen to pick up their marriage where it left off.

The good: Beautifully written with so much emotion.

The not-so-good: Some may find the story slow moving.

Why I chose it: Sounded interesting.

Year: 2018

Pages: 308

Publisher: Vintage (Penguin)

Setting: Atlanta and Louisiana, USA

Rating: 10 out of 10

An American Marriage is a novel that I’ve had on my TBR list for far too long (even before it won The Women’s Prize in 2019). I regret that I hadn’t read it sooner as it’s the kind of novel that reminds you why reading is so good. The plot and the characters are memorable long after you’ve finished reading.

Roy and Celestial haven’t been married long but they have dreams of children, career progression and a long life together. Sure, they argue but they have something solid. Roy has his career mapped out, while Celestial is an artist known for her baby dolls. On a trip to see Roy’s parents in country Louisiana, a decision to stay at a local motel instead of with his parents has life-changing consequences. In the night, Roy is arrested for a crime he didn’t commit. He is sentenced and both their lives change forever. Roy is now in gaol, while Celestial has to make a go of it alone. In gaol. Roy’s life revolves around the small (like trading things to get a piece of fruit) while Celestial’s life changes focus to her business and later, her best friend from childhood. Nobody expects Roy’s sentence to be overturned despite Celestial’s family fighting for him – he’s a Black man sentenced in a southern state. But it does, and Roy is ready to rejoin his life where he left off. For him, it’s as though life stopped when he went inside. Celestial has moved on with hers, and made big changes. She’s not sure if she wants to go back. When Celestial, Roy and Andre (Celestial’s best friend) meet again, it’s a reunion that is fraught with a lot of emotion. How can a relationship work if each person is at a different stage of their lives?

The story is heartbreaking and filled with emotion, not focused on the accusation levelled at Roy but the relationships that surround the couple. Both Roy and Celestial’s relationships with their parents are explored with quite a contrast between their reactions to their marriage and relationships. Of course, Celestial and Roy’s relationship is the main focus of the novel and how it changes is both fascinating and painful to watch. Through letters between the couple in gaol, it’s easy for the reader to see Celestial drifting away while Roy clings on to memories. Roy’s incarceration also changes the relationships around him, from people pushing him away to others welcoming him with open arms on his release. The finale between him, Celestial and Andre is powerful and drawn out. I don’t mean that in a negative way, but more that it is so realistic as the thoughts and feelings of each person change with time. It’s not pretty, but it’s definitely realistic.

Jones writes in a way that you can’t help but be drawn into the lives of the characters and feel their emotions too. While Celestial doesn’t always act in a sympathetic way towards others, she does what is best for her. So does Roy, but he doesn’t seem to be called out on it as much (maybe because he’s a man). It’s a strong, powerful read that you can’t stop thinking about.

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