An American Marriage

Pub Date:   |   Archive Date: 06 Mar 2018

Member Reviews

Roy and Celestial are successful newlyweds living their dream in Atlanta when tragedy strikes. After only a year of marriage, Roy is arrested and sentenced to 12 years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit and Celestial suddenly find herself living alone in a different state from her husband. Regular visits to Roy start to grow further and further apart and Celestial begins to seek comfort in her childhood friend, Andre. She realizes that the love she has for her husband might not be enough to weather his 12 year sentence and finds ways to move on with her life. Then after 5 years served, Roy is released with little notice and he returns to Atlanta to find his life extremely different than the one he left behind.

This is a portrayal of how black Americans still deal with discrimination after Jim Crow. Segregation and discrimination isn’t legally tolerated and enforced anymore but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. Because of the color of his skin, Roy paid the price for a crime he didn’t commit. While he’s sitting in court, he looks at the jury and thinks all 12 of those people will not take him at his word because it’s against a white woman’s. All the while he has sympathy for the woman, because the crime committed against her was atrocious. He doesn’t begrudge her for having her memories mixed up after such a traumatic experience. But even with all the circumstantial evidence and an alibi from his wife, it’s not enough. He was a black man in the wrong place at the wrong time in Louisiana.

Everything that happens after isn’t too hard to imagine. His mother grieves and prays daily for justice to prevail and their lawyer to find the answer for his release. His wife begins to find it difficult to visit him regularly. To see Roy shrink under the weight of where he is. To be treated like less of a person because she’s visiting her husband in jail. To endure all they’ve endured after only a year of marriage seems unfathomable. To continue to endure the entire 12 year sentence seems like a lifetime. All because he was a black man in the wrong place at the wrong time. You get a good sense of the type of prejudice that replaced the legal Jim Crow system. This is an incredibly timely novel and it’s no wonder that Oprah picked it for her book club.

My only issue while reading this book was Celestial. While anyone can understand why someone would look for comfort and familiarity in her situation, I personally don’t think leaving your husband just because he’s in jail is excusable. Especially when he didn’t commit a crime. You are his source of encouragement and strength. Your visits give him something to look forward to. Your lawyers have told you that they expect to find a way to get Roy released. It will likely not be an entire 12 years. I understand they were only married a year before it happened and that you are staring 12 years alone in the face. That she was separated from him and their marriage changed shape. I really do understand that this situation would be extremely difficult. But marriage is a commitment. You cannot quit during the for worse part. All of that said, I have never been in that situation and cannot say with 100% certainty what I might be tempted to do. I only wish she could have been stronger and used her new platform to advocate for her husband and the others in similar situations.

One last thing that I found interesting is that both of the main characters found their selves back in similar situations to where they started. By the chance of their birth, Roy was born to a single mother working as a housekeeper in Louisiana and Celestial to two parents with steady jobs in an Atlanta suburb. Through hard work, Roy found himself a budding executive in Atlanta and Celestial an artist in New York. Through the circumstances of life, Roy finds himself right back where he started and Celestial back in her childhood home in Atlanta. Is Jones trying to make the point that  the chance of their birth as black Americans can make it even more difficult to change their lives? If so, I’m glad she did, because it’s something I never knew about the black American experience. And isn’t that why we read to begin with?
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AN AMERICAN MARRIAGE by Tayari Jones (aka Oprah’s latest book club pick) is really good! Keeping things surface level and relatively spoiler-free, it follows an upwardly mobile newlywed couple living in Atlanta. While Roy and Celestial have their issues, their future looks bright. That is, until Roy is sent to prison for a crime he did not commit. This novel touches on SO MANY interesting themes: marriage, commitment, black incarceration, justice, family dynamics, patriarchy, and class. While all of the characters are complex, flawed and empathy-inspiring, I found myself firmly on Team Roy. Yes, a lot of readers will choose sides, which is yet another reason why this is an excellent book club choice.
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First of all, I received an advanced e-galley from Net Galley for an honest review. This book had me gripped and intrigued from the very beginning as it explored the marriage of Roy and Celestial over time. From the arrest of Roy for a crime he did not commit to Celestial’s struggle with being faithful while Roy was incarcerated for five years, this book truly explores the struggles of love, marriage, fidelity, and a friendship post divorce. Extremely wonderful woven tale of the many struggles of marriage and faithfulness.
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This emotional book gripped me right from the first page. It deals with every person's nightmare, going to jail for a crime they did not commit. I enjoyed how this book changed perspectives and was partly told through letters. Seeing how difficult it was for the woman married to the man in jail lead to my own thoughts of what would I do. Overall an amazing novel!
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I have heard so many incredible things about this book, and I am here to say I was touched in much the same way other reviewers were. I can't possibly give any better recommendation than this book has already received (Hello, Oprah!!), but I will instead add my voice to the many who proclaim, "Yes, go read this book!"
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I downloaded this SO LONG ago after Gabrielle Zevin (my favouritest author in the history of the world) said that she was reading it and loving it, and then it fell into the huge pile of digital manuscripts I have right now, and then I read a chapter and was intrigued, but then another book came in and I got distracted again, but then finally this was released and I remembered I had it.

And I'm so glad I finally sunk my teeth into this one. This had so many important themes going on, and a really strong love struggle (for lack of better terms) that had my heart aching for everyone involved.

My absolute favourite part of this book was family, and the way that Roy looked to his parents so much. I think that respect and appreciation isn't visible as it used to be, and it was warming to see how much he revered them.

I really just ache for humanity with this, in a way--the ending chapters were so gosh darn raw and emotional, and I was empathising so hard for these characters. There was truly no good solution that could come around and it was so heartwrenching to see how everything had changed.

The ending--the ending and then the epilogue--was perfect. It did not make me angry. It was perfect, truly perfect. I am so, so immensely pleased with how Jones ended this. No spoilers. But I was very touched.

Also, the US justice system, is screwed up. I'll add that.

I also loved the Southern culture and feel to it, especially when characters were in New York.

Excellent novel.
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This book feels so real. The characters are full bodied, they react humanly which includes irrationally up against complicated circumstances. I'm not sure I've ever read a more real feeling relationship. This is a book that's going to stay with me.
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I will be honest with you -- I didn't even read the synopsis before I jumped at the chance to read Tayari Jones's An American Marriage. I absolutely adored her previous novel, so I knew that this was a must read for me.

Roy and Celestial are newlyweds when Roy is arrested and jailed for a crime he did not commit. Married only a year at the time of his arrest, the couple finds that they have different visions of what marriage can and should be during a forced separation. Celestial becomes fairly well known for her doll creations while Roy sits in prison, missing the life he was supposed to lead. Celestial finds a shoulder to lean on in her childhood best friend, Andre, and tries to move on with her life. At least, until Roy wins an appeal and is released early. Can a couple separated by time, miles, and spirit make a go of it, or is it too late for them?

I was quite taken with this narrative, and Jones's ability to craft such honest and real characters in her world. It also snagged my heart a little, as Celestial is from and currently resides in Atlanta, which I also consider my home. Jones knows how to dig deep into the clay of the earth and sculpt characters from nothing, line by line, until they become so lifelike that you forget they aren't real. She does that in this novel, and it's an incredible work of art. The book alternates narrators, and I was struck by Roy in particular, as I found him to be an unreliable (albeit captive) narrator. I was waiting for the bomb to drop that maybe he actually did commit the crime -- and I won't tell you the answer to that -- but the truth (without spoilers) is that this part of the story doesn't matter. When the story takes a sharp left toward the end, it's about the characters and their complicated, interwoven relationships that have you raising your eyebrows and choosing a side.

In this novel, just as in life, there are no winning sides, really. In the game of love, someone is bound to get hurt, and bad. There are so many loving, shining moments in this novel that they are hard to illuminate. Do you love Andre, or do you hate him? I liked him, then I disliked him, then I felt bad for him, then I felt triumphant, and finally I became sad for him. Do you love Roy or do you want to punch him in the face? I liked him a great deal at first, then I came to despise him if only for the character arc that Jones has prescribed him. That is, as per usual, a compliment, for to have a strong draw to or away from any aspect of any narrative or character is a testament to the ability of the hand holding the pen. Celestial is the third in the triangle for whom my opinion wavered constantly, and I'm still mulling over the final pull she had on the characters and who they became.

Tayari Jones is one of those writers that I feel understands the complicated web of human emotion deep down in her core, and I will always run to pick up her work. It makes me feel alive and thrilled and devastated and whole.
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Well written, unique, captivating. 

Really enjoyed and see what the hype is about!
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I feel like this book being selected for Oprah’s Book Club got me off the hook for writing a review. I write reviews to make people aware of books that I think should be getting more attention than they are. It’s clear this book isn’t going to have that problem. So I'll keep this brief.

While the marriage of Roy and Celestial is at the center of this novel, several marriages are presented. Blended families, broken marriages, and marriages that have withstood the test of time are not just added to shake up the narrative but are written in a way that gives attention to nuances that are often missed by those on the outside looking in. But this book is about more than marriages. 

Tayari unabashedly portrays the upward mobility of African Americans in the Deep South. Beautifully juxtaposed with a family some would say has achieved the American Dream is an African American family that is equally stability but without same financial wealth. 

This novel felt so close. So familiar. I felt like these characters were real and that I was all up in grown folks’ business. And novel that has an educated and ambitious black woman with two educated and ambitions black men vying for her affections? I. Am. Here. For. It. To sum it up in a sentence, I'd say "An American Marriage" is the literary equivalent of soul food.
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I liked but didn't love this story of a marriage in the newly crowned Oprah Book Club pick (I had started it the day before it was announced!)

Liked - the setting (Atlanta for the most part) and how the characters are products of the complex class system of Atlanta neighborhoods, ideas of the "people you come from" and what that means or doesn't mean, the realistic portrayal of a marriage and what happens when a major challenge comes along, the look at black incarceration and the question of justice.

How much does a marriage commitment mean? What if you are likely not to even see your spouse for 12 years? What is the expectation of the spouse left behind? It was easy to feel compassion towards all sides.

Less than liked - while I'm usually a fan of letters, I felt the narrative ended up feeling lopsided, resorting to letters and multiple points of view when I'm not sure it needed to. Maybe one but not both. The underlying issues are almost too subtle and mainly come across in conversations, but I mean, one character spends half the book in prison! There are also a few too many overly convenient coincidences.

This is my first book by this author and I would absolutely read another. I can't even think of the last non-dystopian novel I've read that is set in Atlanta. And I agree with Oprah that this makes a good book club novel, because there is a lot to discuss.

Quotes about marriage:

"Marriage is between two people. There is no studio audience."

Quotes about incarceration:

"That's your fate as a black man. Carried by six or judged by twelve."

"You know what they say: if you go five miles outside of Atlanta proper, you end up in Georgia. You know what else they say? What do you call a black man with a PhD? The same thing you call one driving a high-end SUV." (this comes after a discussion about how all black men with expensive cars in the south are treated like drug dealers by the police)
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This book is full of what it means to love, lose, and make sacrifices. I would not be surprised to hear that this novel wins awards in the coming year. I recommend this heartily.
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An American Marriage is a powerful, moving, and very human story of a couple forced into an impossible situation. It's told by through three distinct and authentic characters, all of whom are doing their best but are fallible. It's a heartbreaking book that's definitely worth a read. I mean, it's the first book selected for Oprah's Book Club in seven years, and Oprah would never lead you astray!
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This book is beautifully written; heartbreaking and true. Through the story of one couple fractured by a system in which a black man can be both innocent and imprisoned, An American Marriage explores ideas of justice, loyalty, and commitment
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This is such a compelling book! I can definitely see why Oprah made it her newest book club pick (I'm definitely learning to take her advice when it comes to books, although I requested it before that happened.)

This book is all about bad luck and bad timing. It's clear that Roy isn't guilty of the crime he's convicted for (and there's no last minute reveal that he was guilty the whole time). The suspense comes from what will happen once Roy is released---will he get his life back? 

I've heard people say that this is a slow book but I didn't feel that way at all. I was invested immediately and I wanted everything to work out for everyone, even though there wasn't a way to make every character happy. 

An American Marriage is an absolute masterpiece. Highly recommended.
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With most novels and stories that I enjoy in a deep down kind of way, a level of enjoyment that is tough to describe, there is a particular element which has resonated with me on a personal level; however, when I think of An American Marriage, there is no way to distinguish any one theme or character because I felt like I was inside the story from the very beginning. 

"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."

Jones's prose is completely captivating, the story powerfully compelling; I had no idea how quickly I would read through this novel but, once I began, I could not stop. Roy Hamilton and Celestial Davenport have been married for less than two years when Roy is convicted of a crime he did not commit, then sentenced to twelve years in prison.

"You also have to work with the love you are given, with all of the complications clanging behind it like tin cans tied to a bridal sedan."

This novel is not about an unjust conviction, a prison sentence, or an affair; instead, it is about unspoken expectations, idealization and fearful wondering during extended absence, and our roles and responsibilities as individuals, sometimes spouses, to one another. 

"Marriage is like grafting a limb onto a tree trunk. You have the limb, freshly sliced, dripping sap, and smelling of springtime, and then you have the mother tree stripped of her protective bark, gouged and ready to receive this new addition [...]. Even now, all these years later, there’s something not quite natural about the tree, even in its amazing two-tone glory."

Due to my own personal experiences with the subject matter, I feel confident in stating that this novel resonated with me more than it will with most readers; numerous passages have been highlighted and there were times when I had to put the book down, sit back, and reflect on what I'd read. 

"Would anybody who knew me then recognize me today? Innocent or not, prison changes you, makes you into a convict. Striding across the parking lot, I actually shook my head like a wet dog to get these thoughts out of my mind. I reminded myself that the point was that I was walking out the door. Front door, back door. Same difference."

Having acknowledged a very personal connection, I must also admit that I will wholeheartedly recommend this one to nearly every reader I know; An American Marriage will likely become one of my favorite books of the year.
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{My Thoughts}
What Worked For Me
A Dark Look at the American South – An American Marriage opens with a certain level of foreboding. Married just over a year, Roy and Celestial travel from their home in Atlanta to visit his parents in rural Louisiana, with Celestial feeling decidedly uneasy about the trip. This young couple would seem to have it all, budding careers, a beautiful home and plans to start a family. But less than 24-hours later, Roy has been arrested and charged with the rape of a white woman, despite the fact that he was with Celestial in their motel room when the rape occurred. Celestial’s word, Roy’s testimony, none of it matters against the word of his accuser in a small Southern courtroom. Roy is sentenced to 12 years in prison. Sadly, this outcome is not shocking or the real focus of An American Marriage.

What Is Right? – The heart of this book is the struggle for this couple to hold onto a young marriage that hasn’t been around long enough to stand the test of time. At first Roy tells Celestial not to wait for him, but of course she’s not willing to abandon him. As the months and years go on, it gets harder for them both. Roy clings tighter. Celestial pushes back. Is it wrong for her to give up hope? Is it right for him to demand her love even as he pushes away? What is right in an utterly wrong situation?

Alternating Perspectives – Jones used the alternate perspectives of Roy, Celestial, and Andre (friend to both) to bring An American Marriage to life. It took all three to see the full picture. I loved the voice of Roy. His words carried the weary weight of his time in prison, along with love for his parents, and for Celestial. As the story approached its climax Roy’s thoughts bounced between lucidity and desperation.

“Sometimes I wonder if she would know me now. Would anybody who knew me then recognize me today? Innocent or not, prison changes you, makes you into a convict.”

In some ways Celestial had the most difficult role of all. Living on the outside, her life went on, even as she tried to wait for the man she’d married.

“My husband’s ghost showed itself in the guise of other men, almost always young, haircuts Easter fresh year-round. They didn’t always share his physical attributes; no, they were as diverse as humanity. But I recognized them by the ambition that clung to their skins like a spicy cologne, the slight breeze of power that stirred the air, and finally, a mourning that left my mouth tasting of ash.”

An Exquisite Ending – That’s about all I can say. Just know it left me feeling exactly as it should have, satisfied and saddened.

What Didn’t
Letters – The only part of An American Marriage that didn’t work for me was the large section of the book (20%) that was told in the form of letters. These were primarily between Roy and Celestial during his time in prison, and for me they became extremely tedious. I found Roy’s letters especially long-winded and preachy. I wish the author could have delivered the same information and feeling in in some other way.

{The Final Assessment}
While I can’t quite give An American Marriage a perfect rating, I nonetheless highly recommend this book. The examination of a young marriage put to the test under the most trying of circumstances felt both important and real. The author did not sugarcoat or play favoritism with any of her characters. Instead she placed them in a heartbreaking situation and tackled it with amazing honesty. Grade: B+

Note: I received a copy of this book from the publisher (via NetGalley) in exchange for my honest review.
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Roy and Celestial are a newly married black couple and are still in the blissful honeymoon stage for the most part. Their careers are going well and they’ve recently decided to start a family. However, their lives and marriage are forever changed when Roy is arrested for and subsequently convicted of raping a white woman – a crime he did not commit. He is sentenced to twelve years in prison. Can his marriage to Celestial endure a twelve year separation? Should it be expected to? Celestial tries her best to wait it out, but ultimately decides she cannot stay. Then things get complicated when Roy is released after only serving five years of his sentence.

The author explores not only how Roy is affected by his time in prison but how everyone in his life is affected as well. She brings the unfortunate mass incarceration epidemic we have in this country down to the micro level. Roy was an up and coming business man full of optimism before he was falsely convicted. Then his life was basically destroyed and his cheery optimism and ambition stomped out of him by the system.

Tayari Jones’s prose is beautiful and her characters are richly drawn. The depth of this story is amazing. There is so much to think about and so many questions to ask of oneself while reading. Because of that, I think this book would make an excellent book club selection. I know that it’s still early but I’m certain that An American Marriage will make my best reads of 2018 list.
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Where to start in unpacking this book. First of all, it was excellent.

I did not read the synopsis of this book before I read it, and I suggest that you do not either. Just trust me, this is worth it. This is my first Tayari Jones book, and it won’t be my last.

There are so many layers and messages that this book offers. Obviously, per the title, it is about marriage. How do you sustain a marriage while one person is estranged, and is away for longer than the two of you have been married? This book is also about family, what makes a family, how do these ties bind you to the past and the present.

One of the things that made this book so powerful was the way the author told the story. It is told through a combination of first person accounts, and letters written between the characters while the husband is away. You never get an omniscient and unbiased view of the characters, you are left to make your own assumptions and judgements.

The plot of the book moves along and never gets boring. Because of the first-person accounts, and some going back and forth in time, it fills in the gaps of the story and keeps you interested.

This was a really smart, engaging, enlightening, heart-wrenching story. If you are looking for a well written book that will make you think, then this is your read. Also, without giving too much away, this is an important story to tell. It deals with race and how people are unfairly treated and judged. Always important story to tell, but even more so today.

I rated this book 4/5 stars on Goodreads.

Full disclosure: I received this eARC from NetGalley for a fair and honest review. (Thanks NetGalley!)
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The question of what marriage means, what it binds you to and entitles you to, is probably the most fundamental one at issue in Tayari Jones' An American Marriage. It's not the only one, though. The book follows Roy and Celestial, a young black couple married about a year and a half when we first meet them. Their future seems so bright: he's a promising marketing executive, she's an artist beginning to find success with her doll-making. They're thinking about having a baby soon when they leave their home in Atlanta and drive to rural Louisiana to spend the weekend with Roy's parents. Celestial has a bad feeling, but they write it off to nerves. It is the first night they're there that their whole world changes.

Roy is accused of raping a white woman, and even though he's innocent, he's sentenced to 12 years. They immediately appeal, but of course appeals take time, and while that process is ongoing Roy's continued imprisonment leaves both of them uprooted. After five years, the appeal is ultimately successful, but that time has left both Roy and Celestial different people, and they can't just pick up where they left off. 

Any more than that about the plot probably reveals more than would be preferable...this is a book that's best to savor as it reveals itself to you (and usually I'm pretty pro-spoiler, but this does really feel like an exception). The truth is that there's not a lot of "plot" per se, but there's enough, and the work that Jones does with character and the way she uses those characters to poke at our understanding of powerful themes like marriage, and family more broadly, are brilliant. The instinct to find a "good guy" and a "bad guy", when two people are in conflict, is so strong, but Jones refuses us that easy perspective. They're both the bad guy. They're both the good guy. They're both people who've spent the last five years suffering, and trying to deal with that suffering, in their own ways. 

While there is a lot to really like here and this is definitely a good book, I'll be honest: it never quite crossed that line from good into great for me. I got more out of pondering it after I finished it than I got out of reading it, if that makes sense. And also, I had a small qualm with a writing choice Jones made: while the book is primarily told from the perspectives of Roy and Celestial, there's a third person who also gets point-of-view chapters. This person is important to the narrative and it wasn't that those portions were inferior or anything, but I would have preferred that the focus remained on the central couple exclusively. That being said, this is still a book that is well-worth your time and energy, and I'd recommend it to all readers.
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