“An American Marriage”: romance isn’t the only type of love

By: McKenna Graham, Assistant Arts & Life Editor

Photo courtesy of Newsday.com

Believe it or not, this is not just a book about marriage, and it certainly isn’t a love story in the generally conceived sense. Tayari Jones is more clever than that. This is not a story about a man and a woman falling in love, or about a love triangle, or about a love that endures the test of time, although all of these elements are incorporated.

So if this is not a love story, what is it?

The answer is, it’s a story about love. Love between couples, love between parents and children, the love of a life you’ve cultivated for yourself, and the love of a life you’ll never have again. Jones has crafted a story about the modern American South and what it means to have, to hold, and to lose the American Dream.

Celestial and Roy are the two driving forces of the story. They’ve been married for a bit over a year when Roy is falsely accused and found guilty of a devastating crime that sends him to jail for a twelve-year sentence. For the two of them, this is too intense a test too early into their marriage. Their relationship, which has always been marked by passionate arguments, begins to strain under the weight of such a life-crushing situation.

Celestial turns to a childhood friend, Andre, for help and comfort in dealing with such a rough time, while Roy finds himself cultivating a friendship of sorts with his cellmate. All the while, their lawyer is hard at work to get him out from behind bars, but especially in the deep South, when a black man is convicted of a crime, the outlook turns bleak.

Five years pass; the lawyer comes through; Roy is released from prison. He’s lost his promising career, his beautiful wardrobe of suits, and seems to have lost his wife. Their shared dream of owning a shop for Celestial’s hand-crafted dolls has taken off without him. Roy, a man who based his worth on what he had to offer the world, is left behind by his own dream.

I reassert that this is not a story about marriage, whatever the title may lead you to think. Sure, the book incorporates several different marital relationships in order to teach Roy and Celestial each about what it means to be legally joined to someone else, but to name this book “An American Marriage” based solely on Roy’s and Celestial’s relationship makes several unfounded implications about what it means to be married in today’s society.

This is a story about what you value, respect, and love. You are following Roy as he readjusts to life after prison, following Celestial as she navigates her relationships with her husband, her dearest friend, and her passion, and following everyone else’s negotiations with the reality of today’s legal and moral systems.

Jones’s artistic capabilities are strong in the sense that she endeavors not simply to tell the story of these characters, but to flesh them out so that you, as a reader, can get to know them, understand their strengths and shortcomings, and rethink your own moral positions. Some of the decisions Roy makes are unimaginable to me, except when I read them from his perspective, and likewise with the other characters.

The truth is that Jones is writing about characters in their late twenties to early thirties, and their decisions reflect this. Roy misses out on five years of development within his life and thus comes out of prison stunted somehow, but everyone else seems to mature in their own ways as they come into their own definitions of adulthood.

The reason this book got four out of five stars is because it was a good read, but I don’t feel like I really got anything out of it. It gave me the chance to peer into another life, one I’ll never know, but Jones didn’t tell me anything about it. This was a snapshot of life with no caption; I was supposed to make of it what I wanted, but I didn’t feel that the writing was strong enough for me to do anything other than say, “That was an interesting picture.”

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