BOOK REVIEW: An American Marriage by Tayari Jones

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Love makes a place in your life. It makes a place for itself in your bed. Invisibly, it makes a place in your body, rerouting all your blood vessels, throbbing right alongside your heart. When it’s gone, nothing is whole again.
— Tayari Jones, An American Marriage

In her heartbreakingly honest depiction of a modern marriage, Tayari Jones introduces us to a young couple torn apart by a corrupt criminal justice system and asks us to consider whether love can really conquer all - or if it should be expected to.

An American Marriage, so aptly and simply named, follows the stories of Celestial and Roy, a young couple with promising lives and careers ahead of them. When Roy is accused of and convicted for a crime Celestial knows he didn’t commit, they must navigate their drastically changed marriage and attempt to understand the struggles the other faces.

The story is one that could only unfold in America. A racialized couple, already dealing with the hardships of being Black in the United States, are forced to face the ultimate test of love in a situation completely out of their control. As her husband suffers in prison, Celestial’s status skyrockets as her art career takes off. But rather than being able to draw attention to her husband’s plight, Celestial has to withhold the truth in fear of facing reprisals from the people who buy her work. After all, she already has the odds against her.

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Five years into his sentence, Roy’s conviction is overturned and he is released to return home to his family. But, as Jones makes clear, family may not be what is waiting for him.

While most of the story is told in alternating points of view between Celestial and Roy, the five years Roy spends in prison are conveyed by a series of letters The section of the book is deeply personal, and probably the most affecting of the entire novel. Their feelings toward one another are both explicitly conveyed and painfully intricate. They withhold key information and deftly place blame on one another while both struggling to understand what will come of their marriage.

An American Marriage is hard to read at times, which is absolutely the point. There is nothing simple about marriage - even a relatively good, stable one. But for two people who are so young and bright to be trapped - both physically and emotionally - is a terrible thing.

While reading this novel I was conflicted by my feelings toward Celestial in particular. As she pulled further and further away from her imprisoned husband, I questioned her motives and felt that she was selfish. But, having finished the book and read up quite a bit on incarceration and wrongful convictions, I realized there is no right response to what Celestial faced. Love, while undoubtedly powerful, can’t always rise up circumstance. It shouldn’t be expected to solve all of life’s problem when it fact it is the source of many of them.

An American Marriage is an important book. Tayari Jones has laid out for her readers the realities of racial inequality, and the fact that she has done it in the form of a beautifully written novel is incredibly impressive and incredible.