Book Review: An American Marriage by Tayari Jones

This bittersweet novel charts a wrongful conviction's effect on a young couple

<i>An American Marriage</i> by Tayari Jones

You call a piece of fiction "An American Anything" and there is the suggestion of scope. You start thinking in broad strokes, in allegory. You certainly feel the weight of showing a representative experience (and our representatives are almost unceasingly white). But Tayari Jones' An American Marriage lives up to the ambitions of her title while eschewing those expectations – her protagonists are black while their story has them wrestling with the criminal justice system and other national quandaries, the novel always stays intimate and deeply specific.

Part of that intimacy comes from form. Marriage vacillates between first-person narratives and letters between Celestial and Roy, the husband and wife of the titular union. They're in love, they've got bright futures ahead of them (him in corporate America, her as a visual artist who makes poupée dolls), and we're with them for just two chapters before their complicated but promising year-and-a-half-old marriage hits a horrifying roadblock: On a visit to see his parents, Roy is falsely accused and swiftly convicted of rape. He's given a 12-year sentence and whisked away to prison, leaving Celestial to fight for his emancipation and navigate a life alone. We watch their relationship wither on the vine through jailhouse correspondence, and when, after five years served, Roy's conviction is overturned, we follow his return to Atlanta, where Celestial has begun forging a new life with her lifelong best friend, Andre.

From the opening sentence, both Roy and Celestial's narration is in the past tense, but the work of the novel is exposing how they each treat their history. Prison is a cruel limbo that teaches Roy to put the time before his incarceration in amber – his remembrances are suffused with charismatic warmth at the same time that his desire to hand-wave his and Celestial's substantive marital issues builds a sense of foreboding. With freedom comes a fierce hope that Celestial's life has been at standstill in his absence. Celestial has a different story, however, one in which this profound injustice exposed fault lines in their partnership that had been there from the beginning. If Roy's glasses are rose-colored, hers have 20/20 hindsight, and through her, we see the impossibility of her playing Penelope to Roy's Odysseus. But then again, it serves her turn to cast their marriage as a doomed one, when she has the opportunity to find love with Andre in front of her.

"Your father always tries to break you of this, but you are just like him, brilliant but impulsive and a tiny bit selfish. But more women should be selfish. Or else the world will trample you," Celestial's mother tells her when she is young. An American Marriage's most interesting and tender struggle is with the question of what we owe one another; is expecting someone to wait more or less selfish than refusing to do so? Jones could give us a prescriptive answer, but she doesn't, and in that bittersweet unknowing, there is something beautiful.

An American Marriage

Algonquin Books, 321 pp., $26.95

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