I’ve always been fascinated by couples who frequently argue but still have a solid long term relationship. As someone who thrives best in romances which are calm and stable, the sort of fiery atmosphere around relationships filled with cycles of fierce arguments and amorous make ups is perplexing to me. So I felt fully absorbed following the story of Roy and Celestial who are at the centre of Tayari Jones’ “An American Marriage”. They are prone to bickering because of issues to do with ambition, money, pride and jealousy. Nevertheless the intense bond they share in their relatively new marriage promises a long and fruitful life together – until a fateful night when Roy is accused of raping a woman and sentenced to a long term in prison.
Having just recently read James Baldwin’s “If Beale Street Could Talk” I was conscious of the superficial parallels in the stories of these two novels where a promising relationship is shattered when a young black man is incarcerated for a crime he didn’t commit. However, Tayari Jones’ novel is distinctly different in its style and focus. Much of the text is composed of letters during Roy’s time in jail. It’s so interesting reading stories told in epistolary form because they show how the characters shape their own truth. Roy and Celestial earnestly communicate their thoughts to each other, but also subtly try to get the upper hand. So the arguments which have always been a part of their relationship continue as they both change and grow in environments vastly different from each other. Roy becomes more hardened as he’s subjected to the strain of prison life while Celestial thrives as an artist and entrepreneur creating specialist dolls.
Following this couple’s letters is a really moving and dramatic way of depicting how people in a loving committed relationship can grow apart and become alien to each while still retaining an ardent bond. Interspersed with their separate accounts are the points of view from family members and a man named Andre who becomes an important part of Celestial’s life during Roy’s absence. There are also a lot of dramatic twists! Secrets from the past surface and unexpected occurrences shape their journeys in a way which made this a gripping story. A number of teasing ambiguities are also left in the readers’ mind and you’ll be eager to discuss it with other people who’ve read it. Because of this I’m not surprised Oprah chose it for her book club last year.
Something this novel does really powerfully is show how the fact of Roy and Celestial’s race naturally has an impact upon their lives – especially living in a society where black men are often charged for crimes simply for being in the wrong place at the wrong time – but it doesn’t wholly define who they are or the nature of their relationship. It’s impossible to say how their lives together would have played out if Roy hadn’t been incarcerated for years. But the story meaningfully describes how the close connection between these two ebbs and flows as they change as individuals over time. Roy, Celestial and Andre all have such distinct, finely-detailed characters so I felt like I could really hear their voices and understand their different points of view by the end of the novel. In this way the book came alive for me and really tugged on my heart strings.