7 min read ⌚
They married… and they lived happily ever after.
That’s how fairy tales end.
In reality, “An American Marriage” is something much more complicated and painful.
In her award-winning novel, Tayari Jones investigates why.
Who Should Read “An American Marriage”? And Why?”
“An American Marriage” is one of only eighty books selected by Oprah for her Book Club in two decades. And, as we’re sure you know by now, that’s a distinction of the highest order in America.
So, read it whomever you are.
It will make you think about love and marriage, about injustice and human nature.
Warning: you’ll probably shed few tears along the way.
Tayari Jones Biography
Tayari Jones is an award-winning American novelist.
She started writing while at Spelman College, where she attended the classes of Pearl Cleage, who helped her publish her first short story, “Eugenics.” Afterward, she went on to the University of Iowa, from where she obtained an MA in English.
She has published four novels so far. “Leaving Atlanta” won Jones the Hurston/Wright Legacy Award for Debut Fiction in 2003, and “The Untelling” won her the Lillian Smith Book Award two years later.
In 2011 she published “Silver Sparrow.” “An American Marriage” saw the light of day just a few months ago.
If you know anything about Oprah Winfrey, you probably know that she doesn’t take her books lightly: during the 15 years of its existence, she recommended no more than 70 books on her famous Oprah’s Book Club.
And since 2012 when Oprah’s Book Club 2.0 was founded, she has endorsed just 9 books.
We mention this because in February this year, the very same day the book was published, she revealed her first 2018 selection: Tayari Jones’ “An American Marriage,” a book described as “a love story warped by racial injustice.”
Straightforwardly written and “peopled by vividly realized, individual characters,” the novel touches upon the theme of what it means to be an African-American in the penitentiary system of the United States, but also about what a separation from the one you love may mean in the long run.
In fact, that’s where it all started.
In a recent “CBS This Morning” episode Tayari Jones revealed that the inspiration for this book was a love spat she overheard in an Atlanta mall.
“Roy, you know you wouldn’t have waited on me for seven years,” the beautifully-dressed girl said at one point.
What are you talking about?” replied the man who looked as if “he had a long day… and perhaps even a long life. This wouldn’t have happened to you in the first place!
Well, Tayari Jones tried to unearth the story behind the exchange.
And when we say “unearth” we do mean “invent” – after all, it’s fiction, and she has the poetic license to make up things in order to talk about the things that really matter.
And she does – in three parts and thirty chapters, each of which is narrated by one of the three main protagonists of the book: Roy, Celestial, and Andre.
Part One: Bridge Music
This part sets the scene and features only three chapters.
The first one is narrated by Roy Othaniel Hamilton Junior, a guy who did almost everything right and still wasn’t rewarded by life’s fortunes.
We learn that he was raised in a working-class family in Louisiana and that he used all the help he could to get a scholarship to Morehouse College. An up-and-coming artist, he meets Spelman alum Celestial Davenport, and they become romantically involved and then married.
Sometime later, they go to the fictional town of Eloe, Louisiana to spend Labor Day with Roy’s affectionate parents, Big Roy and Olive.
And then it all goes downhill:
Looking back on it, it’s like watching a horror flick and wondering why the characters are so determined to ignore the danger signs. When a spectral voice says, get out, you should do it. But in real life, you don’t know that you’re in a scary movie.
Roy and Celestial have a fight, make up, spend the night in a motel and, in the middle of the night, are dragged away by the police.
We learn that it’s because Roy is falsely accused of raping a white woman in the motel that evening.
Celestial takes over the role of a narrator in the second chapter of the first part and recounts to us the details of the trial.
Roy is sentenced to a dozen years in prison, the first five of which Roy and Celestial spend exchanging letters.
The third chapter consists of the letters sent between the lovers. From them, we learn that Celestial – or Georgia as Roy loving calls her – and Roy agree to abort a child they had conceived before the punishment, and that, in time, Celestial stops visiting Roy regularly.
One day, she announces that she doesn’t want to be Roy’s wife anymore.
Roy stops sending letters until one day he finally has a chance to tell Celestial the things he couldn’t during the previous five years: “Georgia, I am coming home.”
He ends the letter with:
I know that we can’t ‘start love over.’ But this is what I do know: you have not divorced me. All I want is for you to tell me why you have chosen to remain my lawfully wedded wife. Even if someone else is occupying your time, you have chosen to keep me as your husband these many years. In my mind, I picture us at our same kitchen table, in our same comfortable house, passing quiet words of truth.
Georgia, this is a love letter. Everything I do is a love letter addressed to you.
And that’s the hopeful ending of the first part of “An American Marriage.”
Part Two: Prepare a Table for Me
The second part – which consists of thirteen chapters – begins with a chapter narrated by a guy named Andre, whom we know from the first part as the longtime best friend of Celestial.
Well, it doesn’t take a genius to understand that he’s now something more.
We learn from the following chapter that Celestial’s father didn’t approve of the relationship, but that it went on nevertheless.
And that Celestial and Andre – though happy about Roy’s release – are now worried to tell him the news of their affair.
Made even worse by the fact that the first time these two had sex was on the night Celestial went to Eloe to help bury Roy’s mother, who had passed away from lung cancer during Roy’s time in prison.
Eloe must have some magical properties since, upon his release, that’s where Roy has sex with the last important character of our book, the only one of the four main ones who is not granted a chapter to narrate – Davina Hardwick.
Even so, Roy is not so much interested in Davina as he is for Celestial.
So, he heads for Atlanta to see Celestial, leaving Eloe where Celestial has sent Andre to collect him.
It’s all part of his plan:
It’s complicated, but she sent Andre to Eloe to come and collect me. By my calculations, he should be hitting the highway first thing tomorrow morning. This is why I didn’t tell her I was coming. I need to see her by herself, not with Dre hanging around. I’m not saying that there is anything between them, but I’m saying that there has always been something between them.
An American Marriage Epilogue
Part Three: Generosity
Roy’s plan works, and he confronts Celestial.
She confirms to him that she’s dating Andre.
Andre returns afterward and he and Roy fight.
In the end, out of a sense of duty, Celestial agrees to stay with Roy, who is – don’t forget – still her lawfully wedded husband.
Roy, however, feels that this is not right.
Georgia,” he says as his wife encircles his neck with her arms, “You’re in me. When I touch you, your flesh communicates with my bones. You think I can’t feel how sad you are?
I’m scared,” replies Celestial. “It’s hard to start over.
In the Epilogue, we learn from the letters exchanged between Roy and Celestial that Celestial and Andre are back together and that they are expecting a child. They have no plans to marry, however.
Roy and Davina, on the other hand, have plans to marry, but they don’t want any children.
“Will you pray for us?” Celestial asks Roy in writing, knowing full well how painful the sentence “I am having a baby” may sound to him.
Of course I will,” answers Roy. “My prayer for you is for peace, which is something you have to make. You can’t just have it.
No, no… it’s just that the room’s a bit dusty.
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“An American Marriage PDF Quotes”
But home isn't where you land; home is where you launch. You can't pick your home any more than you can choose your family. In poker, you get five cards. Three of them you can swap out, but two are yours to keep: family and native land. Click To Tweet
Our Critical Review
Subtle, well-crafted, and powerful” – that’s how Kirkus Review describes “An American Marriage.
Heart-breaking and a must-read.
That’s what we feel that we need to add.