An American Marriage

  • By Tayari Jones
  • Algonquin Books
  • 320 pp.

Incarceration, injustice, and infidelity plague a couple's tenuous union.

An American Marriage

“Ours was a love story, the kind that’s not supposed to happen to black girls anymore,” says Celestial when she recalls how she and Roy met. But then their story changes, becoming a tale of injustice, black incarceration, and interrupted lives. It is what becomes of Celestial and Roy even though they have everything going for them.

Celestial is a doll maker, and Roy is a businessman. They have been married one year when Roy is incarcerated for a crime he didn’t commit. Then it’s no longer love that shapes and molds their marriage, so much as Roy’s imprisonment.

Full disclosure: Although I am not black, and I have not served jail time for crimes I didn’t commit, I was once married to a man who was incarcerated for several years. I understand what that does to a relationship. Just like Celestial, I met another man while my husband was in jail. And yes, dear reader, I married him.

There are so many threads to a story like this, but author Tayari Jones doesn’t draw on them all. The crime Roy is accused of and the evidence leading to his trial and sentencing are largely left out of the narrative. How that injustice would wrench the couple apart and also draw them together could have been explored more deeply and to great effect here. But many readers will accept this gap because of the strength of the voice.

Jones uses three characters to tell the story: Celestial, Roy, and Andre, a childhood friend who later becomes something more. Their voices are rich and fully alive.

“There is a certain type of Christian woman who can’t resist a godless man, keeping his soul safe on her knees,” Celestial observes. “Sometimes I wish I were like her, born to save a man; then I could follow my mother’s bread crumb trail.”

But most of the psychological tension in this book comes from plotting rather than from the chemistry among characters. The letters between Roy and Celestial feel chatty and authentic, but when the two are finally reunited, the weight of the years and what might have been doesn’t lie between them very tangibly. Neither of them looks back on the promises they made or feels the distance between their actual reunion and the one they must have longed for and imagined.

Jones uses the three voices to pace her story, to pull back from the relationship and demonstrate the ravages of distance and time. She also packs emotional weight into narratives about other family marriages — the story of Big Roy and Olive, for example, and reminiscences about how much Olive is missed. Perhaps these kinds of stories become part of a normal marriage, but Roy and Celestial’s union has been deprived of them.

The family stories are revealed when Roy and his father, or Andre and his father, eat bacon and eggs, or Big Roy makes salmon croquettes. But against the central narrative they often feel sentimental because they don’t impact the stakes faced by Roy and Celestial.

It is also a challenge to feel wholeheartedly for Roy, in spite of the injustices that challenge him. He is casually unfaithful during the first year of marriage and cheats on Celestial with a woman named Davina as soon as he gets out of jail. Why, then, is he surprised to discover how Celestial has been living in his absence?

Having said this, I found Roy’s relationship with Davina to be the most heartfelt in the book. Davina is a flesh-and-blood woman, and her character jumps off the page as she “floated herself back onto the cushion like she was showing off all her hinges.”

An American Marriage reads like a kind of pastiche of the 1957 film “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg.” In it, a man goes off to the Algerian wars, and his girlfriend promises to wait for him. But time takes its toll and communications drop off.

Then the lovers have to move forward separately as best they can. This means they can’t retread the territory they once shared. In the end, they meet by accident only to part once again. The film is a bittersweet French counterpart to that all-American classic “Singin’ in the Rain.”

I was reminded of the final Christmas scene in “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg” when I read the Christmas scene at the end of An American Marriage. Roy watches Celestial from a distance while, in a shop across the street, she sells one of her handmade dolls to a customer. Seeing her from this perspective, Roy realizes that they are no longer the same people they once were.

Many love stories are bittersweet, but they aren’t traditionally American. Perhaps America is too devoted to the myth of the American dream to take such complexity on board. But in this novel, Tayari Jones puts more sadness and nuance into the American romantic narrative. She tells a different kind of love story that many will respond to because, ultimately, it rings true.

[Editor's note: This review originally ran in 2018.]

Amanda Holmes Duffy is the author of I Know Where I Am When I’m Falling and a bookseller at Politics and Prose in Washington, DC.

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