Tayari Jones’s An American Marriageby Deena ElGenaidi
An American Marriage
(Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2018)
Tayari Jones’s novel An American Marriage details the story of Roy and Celestial, a couple living in Georgia. The narrative is a familiar one: a man goes to prison for a crime he did not commit, while his wife continues to live her life in the outside world. However, Jones does not focus on life in prison or the drama of Roy’s trial and incarceration. Instead, as the title suggests, the novel is about marriage and the grief inflicted on black bodies in America.
Celestial and Roy are upwardly mobile, middle-class members of society. After about a year and a half of marriage, though, Roy is sentenced to twelve years in prison for a rape he did not commit. Following his incarceration, a large chunk of the story is told through letters that Roy and Celestial send to one another. We learn little of prison life, as Roy chooses not to share those details with his wife, and instead, we see the ways in which their marriage unfolds as he remains behind bars. Celestial’s art career takes off through the dolls she makes in Roy’s likeness, and as her success grows, so does the distance between her and her husband.
Though the novel is described as “a stunning epic love story” in a blurb by writer Edwidge Danticat, the story proves to be much more than just that. Roy is an innocent black man, and we are reminded of that fact many times throughout the novel. He and Celestial are staying in a hotel room during a visit to see Roy’s parents when the police barge in and arrest him for the rape of an old woman down the hall. He is a black man who was in the wrong place at the wrong time. At one point, Roy says, “What happened to me could happen to anybody,” to which his friend responds, “You think I don’t know that? I been black all my life.” Jones, without showing us any police brutality or overt racism towards Roy from law enforcement officials or anyone else, still makes clear that Roy’s incarceration occurs as a result of the systemic racism and violence regularly inflicted on black bodies. The white woman in the hotel room down the hall saw her rapist in Roy, despite his innocence and his alibi. As Celestial’s father later says, “Roy is a hostage of the state. He is a victim of America.”
On top of this, Jones complicates the narrative by introducing marital turmoil from the very beginning. Roy loves his wife, but he often flirts with other women. Celestial loves her husband, but she struggles to gain his mother’s approval and is unsure of whether she wants children. Then, Roy is sent to prison, and their troubles only worsen. Through their letters to one another, it becomes unclear whether their marriage will survive the duration of Roy’s prison sentence. They were, after all, only married for a short time. Roy expects Celestial to be the dutiful wife, and when she tells him that she can’t, he responds, “There are women around here who have been coming to see their men for decades, riding buses that leave Baton Rouge at 5 a.m.” Celestial writes back, “Are you really comparing me with the women who crowd the crack-of-dawn bus to prison? I know them, too. I’ve met them myself. They organize their whole lives around coming to Parson; besides working, it’s all they do.” Celestial does not see this as a viable future for herself.
Jones does not take sides in her narration, and as readers, we are able to empathize with both Roy and Celestial. We question what they owe to one another and how they are expected to behave in their lives both during and after Roy’s prison time. Roy is innocent, but as Celestial says in one of her letters, “I am innocent, too.” Though she is not serving prison time, she, too, is being punished, forced to wait out her husband’s sentence, expected to put her life and her future on hold and remain a faithful wife until he returns home.
When Roy gets out, the story is then told through their points of views in alternating chapters, along with the point of view of Andre, a Celestial’s childhood friend and Roy’s college friend. The different points of view allow us to hear each character’s side of the story; this further complicates our understanding of the relationships.
Jones’s novel is the story of an American marriage, as the title suggests—a marriage beset with turmoil in our country’s harsh political landscape. Through the character of Roy, Jones attempts to show readers what it’s like being a black man in America. An American Marriage is an important story—one that evokes sadness and understanding through the characters and situations that Jones creates.
DEENA ELGENAIDI is a writer living in Brooklyn. Her work has also appeared in Electric Literature, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Heavy Feather Review, and other publications.