I first read Tayari Jones when she published Silver Sparrow a few years ago, where she grabbed me from the very first line (which you can read about here). Thus it took very little persuading when the good folks at Algonquin emailed to ask me to take a gander at Tayari’s new novel, An American Marriage. While its opening line is compelling enough (“There are two kinds of people in the world, those who leave home, and those who don’t.”), it’s the characters here who kept me reading feverishly into the night.
Meet Celestial and Roy, a young couple on the verge of having it all, who hail from very different backgrounds. Celestial is the beloved daughter of an upper middle class family outside of Atlanta, gifted with every privilege that love, money, and social capital can provide; Roy, on the other hand, is the adopted son of a hardscrabble father and mother piecing jobs together to keep enough food on the table and shoes on their feet in their Louisiana hamlet: “There was nothing extra. If my childhood were a sandwich, there would be no meat hanging off the bread. We had what we needed and nothing more.”
Their relationship is electrifying and intense, and they’re the vanguard of the New South, poised to set Atlanta on fire, driven by love and ambition in equal measure, when the unthinkable happens: a little over one year into their marriage, a white woman accuses Roy of breaking into her hotel room and raping her. Despite Celeste’s testimony that she was with her husband all night, the many character witnesses brought forth, and the expensive attorney that Celeste’s family is able to pay for, the jury convicts Roy, sending him to prison for twelve years:
The judge paused and demanded that Roy bear this news on his feet. He stood again and cried, not like a baby, but in the way that only a grown man can cry, from the bottom of his feet up through his torso and finally through his mouth. When a man cries like that you know it’s all the tears that he was never allowed to shed, from Little League disappointment to teenage heartbreak, all the way to whatever injured his spirits just last year (p. 40).The narrative chapters alternate mostly between Roy and Celestial’s points of view, and in the beginning they’re largely epistolary, told in letters back and forth after Roy is incarcerated. Eventually other characters take on the storytelling burden, including Andre, Celestial’s childhood best friend and one of Roy’s former classmates at Spelman. While the book never loses its focus as an indictment of the system that imprisons black men at a terribly disproportionate rate compared to white men, the heart of this novel is the relationships that unfold: Roy’s and Celestial’s, of course, but also Celestial and her family, Roy and his family, Celestial and Andre, Andre and Roy, Celestial and her work, Roy and his cellmate...the various permutations go on.
This is a novel that examines love and loyalty and what it means to be family, scrutinizing the smallest details from multiple points of view. The writing is terrific, and I think that Tayari Jones makes particularly good use of metaphor throughout, and what’s more, she constantly shows generosity and sympathy to her entire cast of characters. It broke my heart more than once, and I think it will break yours, too. This book is not just going to loom large among books published this winter, it is going to be big. BIG.
NB: This book will be published by Algonquin on February 6, 2018, but I recommend you put it in your reading queue now.