An American Marriage by Tayari Jones: A review
“Much of life is timing and circumstance, I see that now.”Indeed. If only Roy and Celestial had agreed to spend that Thanksgiving night at Roy's parents’ house instead of going to a motel in Eloe, Louisiana, the woman in the motel would never have had an opportunity to wrongly accuse Roy of her rape that night. Roy would never have been arrested and charged with that rape, even though he had been with Celestial the entire time and she knew, and testified, that he couldn't have done it. But he was a black man in a small Louisiana town and he never had a chance. He was summarily convicted and sentenced to twelve years in prison. Timing and circumstance.
Before that fateful night, Roy and Celestial had literally been the embodiment of the American Dream and the New South. Roy came from a middle class Louisiana family and Celestial was from an upper middle class Atlanta family. They had been introduced in college by Celestial's lifelong friend Andre (called Dre), but they had not made a connection then. A few years later, they met accidentally in New York City and that was that.
By the time we meet them, they have been married for about eighteen months and each of them was well on his/her way to success in life; Celestial as an artist and Roy as her representative and an entrepreneur. They are decidedly upwardly mobile. They've done everything right. They have not had to concern themselves with racial discrimination; it's something they've never really faced, although their parents have schooled them in the history and language of oppression. They have been protected. They have, in many respects, lived charmed lives. Then came that night in November when it all came crashing down.
Tayari Jones' book in some ways reminded me of Lauren Groff's excellent Fates and Furies of a few years ago. The story of this marriage, as in that book, is told through the two different perspectives of the couple. But Jones' book has a twist in that there is a third perspective - that of Andre.
Andre was the boy next door when Celestial was growing up. They were like brother and sister. They shared baths as babies and toddlers. They were always best friends and Andre was the person who knew her best. Their platonic relationship had only crossed the line into sexuality once, in high school, and they both mutually agreed that THAT would never happen again! That didn't keep Andre from falling in love with Celestial, even though he never spoke of his feelings.
While Roy is in prison, the story of the marriage is told through the letters that Celestial and Roy write to each other. We get very little flavor of the prison life that Roy endures; the focus is entirely on the marriage, but there is a surprise waiting for Roy in that prison, one that will help to sustain him as he waits and his lawyer continues to appeal the case and fight for his release.
I don't think it will be revealing too much to say that the appeals finally succeed and Roy is released early, but will there be any marriage left by that time?
This is a quiet but compelling story about what it means to be black in America and I was transfixed by its narrative from the beginning. In spite of everything they've endured, the characters still feel lucky because, as Celestial says at one point, there is "no appealing a cop's bullet."
My rating: 5 of 5 stars