Tayari Jones new novel (which is also the latest addition to Oprah’s Book Club) is a powerful and heartbreaking dissection of a marriage that goes sour after an unexpected tragedy.
Celestial and Roy are perfect embodiments of Atlanta’s new black middle class. She is an artist who is gaining success with her collectible dolls, which she calls “poupées” and which sell for thousands of dollars each. He has a degree in marketing and is a rising corporate executive with a head full of entrepreneurial plans.
Celestial is from a wealthy Atlanta family and Roy was raised by working class parents in the fictional town of Eloe, Louisiana. In the early chapters, narrated in turns by Roy and Celestial as they speak directly to the reader, we learn about some of the tensions in their courtship and young marriage.
Celestial wants to share equally in the decisions, is ambivalent about motherhood but is not good at communicating her converns. Roy desperately wants a son but has a hard time being truthful with his wife and is not always faithful. They are in “blue hot” love but still have reservations.
Eighteen months into their marriage police break down the door of the motel room the couple is staying in when visiting his parents in Eloe and Roy is quickly arrested and sentenced to 12 years in prison for the rape of a white woman which Celestial and the readers know he didn’t commit. The arrest and trial and handled quickly and startlingly. Jones portrays the events as one of those awful things that can happen to young black men in America today, especially in Louisiana which has the highest incarceration rate for black men in the United States.
This takes place about a third of the way into the novel and Jones then takes the decision to focus less on the political and more on the personal. The middle section of the book is made up of realistic sounding letters between Roy and Celestial. Roy calls his early missives “love letters” but as his life stagnates in prison and Celestial’s flourishes in the outside world the couple inevitably grow apart, quarrel, display jealousy and insecurity.
One of Jones’s greatest accomplishments, for me, is how she believably balances readers’ shifting sympathies for Roy and Celestial. Neither is entirely culpable but neither is completely blamless either.
The final third of the novel delves more into Roy and Celestial’s relationships with their families and a new voice is added to the narration — Andre, Celestial’s childhood friend who has always loved her and who gradually takes Roy’s place in her new life.
The last section is full of moral ambiguity as the three wind up in a complex mix in which no one can come out unhurt after Roy is released five years into his sentence. It is a classic no-win situation and Jones ratchets up the tension as we try to see things from Roy, Celestine and Andre’s perspectives and from the points of view of their mothers, fathers and in-laws.
Celestial in particular is a strongly drawn character. She is both generous and selfish and unable to commit to a single path. She doesn’t file for divorce with Roy but still wants to “move on” with her life after she realizes that her time with Roy was brief in comparison to their time apart.
Roy’s disbelief in his fate is also painfully portrayed. Of prison he tells Celestial: “Even if you go in innocent, you don’t come out that way.” Unfortunately, and perhaps inevitably, Andre is the less compelling character, being more reactive and overshadowed by the two more nuanced characters.
Jones also spends lots of time examining the conundrums of fatherhood in black communities, where fathers are often absent due to societal issues or incarceration. The novel handles gender roles, the politics of race and economic tensions with skill and sincerity. An American Marriage is a gracefully crafted and engrossing novel.
An American Marriage by Tayari Jones, Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 308pp.