Books on Tap read An American Marriage by Tayari Jones on February 7 at Champion Brewery. Celestial and Roy have been married a little over a year when Roy is falsely convicted of raping a woman while they are visiting his parents in Louisana. After his sentencing, Celestial returns to their home in Atlanta and they primarily communicate through letters. While Roy’s life is on hold in prison, Celestial realizes some of the dreams they had made as a couple while wrestling with her duty to her husband, her community and herself.
The beautiful ambiguity at the heart of the novel extends to the title, which we first debated. What made this an American marriage? Was it the fact that Roy and Celestial came from different classes and parts of the country? Was it their ambition? The human emotions portrayed in the exchange of letters (the strongest part of the book) are universal. It’s also particularly American in that it was America’s racism and prison pipeline that convicted an innocent Roy and robbed the couple of the chance to set roots in their marriage before it was challenged.
They both had parents with strong relationships, even if they started with complications. The parents, however, were allowed to develop those relationships over decades and to learn from their mistakes. Each set of parents also makes sacrifices for their children both before and after the accusation. In fact, Celestial is only able to see the truth of her relationship when compared to the depth of Roy’s parents’ devotion.
Celestial feels pressure from herself, her mother-in-law and her community to stay with Roy. However, as Roy says, the situation would never be reversed because there is almost no way Celestial would be incarcerated in similar circumstances. Roy is attracted to Celestial’s independent thinking but he is stalled in prison as her creative profession takes off and her personal relationships evolve. Unlike Penelope, she cannot wait unchanged for her Odysseus.
One of our astute readers described the novel’s theme as forgiveness through Biblical interpretation. Part Two is entitled “Prepare A Table for Me” which, in the Bible, refers to men having enemies all around. This can be compared to Roy finding himself surrounded by enemies as he faces court and wrongful imprisonment. It also could be similar to situations many Black Americans find themselves facing in mostly white America’s criminal justice system. At the end of the novel, in the last chapter told through Andre’s voice, our reader pointed out that Jones pairs the word debts and the word trespasses. These two words, in their opinion, point to the need to forgive in order to be forgiven. It’s clear by the end of the novel that although neither Roy nor Andre nor Celestial have committed a crime, they all seek forgiveness and need to forgive each other in order to be whole.
The author gives the characters what the same criminal justice system took away: time. Once again through letters, we are able to see time’s healing powers. Neither of them are where they imagined they would be when they started out but neither are they in the crisis that fuels the novel. Those last chapters allow the reader to savor the timelessness of the emotional journey.
Books on Tap Information:
- Same Page Community Read: Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson (March 5)
- Lab Girl by Hope Jahren (April 2)
- There, There by Tommy Orange (May 7)
- Clock Dance by Anne Tyler (June 4)
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