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book review: An American Marriage

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An American Marriage by Tayari Jones. Algonquin Books| February 2018| 320 pages | $26.95| ISBN: 978-1-61620-134-0

RATING: 4.5/5*

“Ours was a love story, the kind that’s not supposed to happen to black girls anymore.”

As its title suggests, this is a novel about marriage. About an American marriage. about the institution of marriage and how it fits or does not fit individual aspirations and dispositions. Recently married couple Celestial and Roy have promising careers in Atlanta—Celestial as an artist and Roy in business. Celestial earned an advanced art degree in New York. She’s focused and determined to excel in the art world. Both she and Roy graduated from historically black colleges. Growing up with weatlhy parents affords Celestial the ability to pursue her creative endeavors. Marriage often doesn’t align with a creative spirit.

“Celestial was a tricky woman to figure out; she almost didn’t marry me although I never doubted her love. For one thing, I made a couple of procedural errors with my proposal, but more than that, I don’t think she planned on getting married at all. She kept this display she called a “vision board,” basically a corkboard where she tacked up words like prosperity, creativity, passion! There was also magazine picture that showed what she wanted out of life. Her dream was for her artworks to be part of the Smithsonian, but there was also a cottage on Amelia Island and an image of the earth as seen from the moon.”

While visiting Roy’s parents in a small Louisiana town, Roy gets arrested and he’s sent to prison soon after. Celestial turns to Andre, her oldest and closest friend, for emotional support. Andre actually introduced Roy to Celestial during college. Celestial becomes immensely successful creating dolls.

Roy argues his innocence and remains focused on a return to Atlanta. He and Celestial exchange letters at least initially. Being in prison fuels Roy with self-doubt about the tenacity of his marriage. It’s difficult to maintain a relationship through letters and limited visiting time. Roy helps other prisoners write letters/emails to earn a bit of income and respect. The sections which focus on Roy’s prison time prove to be at turns upsetting and frightening. Roy meets his biological father in prison. After several years, Roy’s conviction finally gets overturned and he returns to Atlanta.

“A dozen of us were released that day. For a young cat, no more than twenty, a family waited with metallic balloons shaped like Christmas ornaments; a little boy wearing a red rubber nose squeezed the bulb on a bicycle horn, somehow causing the nose to glow. Another dude didn’t have anybody. He didn’t look left or right but walked straight to the gray van that would carry him to the bus station, as though pulled by a leash. All the rest were picked up by women; some mamas, others wives or girlfriends.”

At its core it’s a novel about the black experience. About what it means to be black in America. According to the NAACP, African Americans comprised 34% of the 6.8 million correctional population in 2014. African Americans are incarcerated at a rate of 5 times that of white Americans. It’s a reality that black Americans will be more likely to know someone in prison or be personally affected by the criminal justice system. It’s a reality that black men get targeted and get wrongfully accused or generally screwed over by the system.

As the novel progresses, the strong, vibrant writing allows readers to become absorbed in Celestial and Roy’s marriage and relationship as well as their relationship to their friends and family. Through these characters, author Tayari Jones explores family and love by delving into step-parenting, wandering biological fathers, fidelity and abandonment. How does the type of family the characters grew up in affect them as adults.

This is a beautifully written and thoughtful novel that should elicit some fascinating discussions. Oprah recently named An American Marriage her next book club pick. Tayari Jones will be at Harvard Book Store on Monday, February 12 at 7pm.

–review by Amy Steele

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