Told through first-person narratives by Roy, Celestial, and Andre, An American Marriage by Tayari Jones stretches readers’ ideas of love, betrayal, truth, and heartbreak. Jones captured my attention immediately beginning with Roy’s narration. The first line is “there are two kinds of people in the world, those who leave home, and those who don’t. I am a proud member of the first category.”
We quickly learn that Roy has grown up in the small Louisiana town of Eloe. Roy tells us “home isn’t where you land; home is where you launch.” Having grown up in a small Arkansas town only ten miles north of Louisiana, I identify with Roy’s philosophy of leaving home and launching. Roy goes on to say, “I’m not talking bad about Eloe. For one, Eloe may be in Louisiana, not a state brimming with opportunity, but it is located in America, and if you’re going to be black and struggling, the United States is probably the best place to do it.”
Roy explains that he has been lucky; his parents are hardworking and have provided him with a home, clothing, food, and education. He describes his advantages this way: “I had my own bathroom. When I outgrew my shoes, I never waited for new ones. While I have received financial aid, my parents did their part to send me to college.”
Roy describes meeting Celestial when they were both college students. Andre, another of the narrators, in fact, introduces Celestial and Roy. However, the two do not cross paths again until they have both graduated from college and are in NYC. Celestial is in graduate school seeking an art degree; Roy is in NYC on a business trip. Often such meetings feel contrived; this one though is natural. Roy and his fellow business associates happen into a restaurant where Celestial is working as a waitress while she goes to graduate school.
Roy pursues Celestial and persuades her to marry him. They marry and live in Atlanta in the home where Celestial grew up. Her parents have moved to a much larger home. Interestingly enough, Celestial’s father deeds the house to Celestial alone, despite the fact that his daughter is married to Roy. Celestial tells Roy it doesn’t matter because the house is theirs together, not hers alone.
Roy’s job is going well. He encourages Celestial to quit her job and follow her dream of making fancy dolls to sell as art objects: poupées. Roy suggests the name. The two have a lovely home, a loving relationship, and a bright future. What could go wrong?
Readers quickly find that much can go wrong. As much as Roy and Celestial love one another, they also argue and disagree about a number of things. Celestial is mistrustful of Roy. Is her mistrust unfounded? Then Roy is accused of the unthinkable, of raping a stranger, a woman in the same motel where Roy and Celestial are staying when they go to Eloe to visit Roy’s parents.
Andre, the boy next door, also tells his version of the story. He and Celestial have known each other their whole lives; they are like brother and sister. Or are they?
Jones pulls readers into the story by telling it through three characters’ eyes, but also including details from Roy’s early life and his parents as well as Celestial’s early life and her parents. Roy and Celestial come from entirely different backgrounds. Roy has never wanted for anything, but he has not enjoyed the luxury that Celestial’s parents have given her. Andre, too, is like Celestial, a man of privilege.
I could pull many, many lines from the story. The three below give readers an idea of the beauty of the language that Jones conveys:
“My father has this alpha-omega way about him, like he was here before you showed up and he would be sitting in the same recliner after you left.”
“Olive brought me into this world and trained me up to be the man I recognized as myself. But Celestial was the portal to the rest of my life, the shiny door to the next level.”
“But that night in the Piney Woods, I believed that our marriage was a fine-spun tapestry, fragile but fixable. We tore it often and mended it, always with a silken thread, lovely but sure to give way.”
Tayari Jones has published three previous novels: Leaving Atlanta, The Untelling, and Silver Sparrow. She has also written for Tin House, The Believer, The New York Times, and Callaloo. Jones has received praise from a number of sources including Oprah Winfrey who chose An American Marriage as an Oprah Book Club selection in 2018.
Barack Obama wrote of An American Marriage that “one of my favorite parts of summer is deciding what to read when things slow down just a bit, whether it’s on a vacation with family or just a quiet afternoon . . . An American Marriage by Tayari Jones is a moving portrayal of the effects of a wrongful conviction on a young African-American couple.” Other reviewers use words like haunting, beautifully written, compelling, and tense.
Learn more about Tayari Jones and her work, visit her Web site: http://www.tayarijones.com/.