I’ve been mulling over this review of An American Marriage for a while, wanting to write it in a way that does it justice. To say that this is a great book is not enough. It is that, but it is also a book we need.
Before I dive into the novel itself, let’s address some preliminaries. I listened to it as an audio book, and it was one that truly paid off in that format. With multiple narrators, it came to life. A significant portion of the first part of the book is epistolary, and I’m typically not a huge fan. But in this context, it fit well and helped the narrative move as Jones needed. It was perfect.
An American Marriage is the story of Roy and Celestial – a young, “got the world by its tail”, professional couple living in Atlanta. While not perfect, their marriage seems set to endure until on a night when they are out of town, Roy is wrongly accused and then convicted of rape. He is sentenced to twelve years in prison – a lifetime for these still newlyweds.
The years prove too much for Celestial, and over the course of their letters to and from each other, we learn she’s moving on, leaving Roy with a decision to make when he does get out.
In the midst of impossible emotional turmoil, Jones demonstrates adept craft at poignantly revealing truth. While at its core, the narrative is based on reality that only applies to a subset of men, she transcends that aspect to provide insight on love, friendship and loyalty that all can relate to. This is an important read for both elements.
One thing that I’ve started recently is, when I read a book I love, I search for podcasts of either the author being interviewed or the book being discussed. This adds to my reading pleasure. If you’re in the same boat, check out Literary Atlanta podcast Episode 25 to hear an interview with Tayari Jones. I also appreciated this article in The Atlantic where Jones talks at length about her inspiration – both as a writer and for this book. You might want to check them out in advance if you still need convincing to pick this one up.
I will close with a criticism and a warning. There is sub-plot that I thought was just a bit contrived. The story line about who Roy meets in prison seemed overly manipulative. Also, there’s a good bit of fairly strong (though realistic) language. I thought it more than usual, so if you’re one who is easily offended by that, you might want to skip this one.
Otherwise, I think the topic and the themes are beautifully executed and make for wonderful reading and potentially a great discussion. This would be a fantastic book club selection.
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