Review: An American Marriage by Tayari Jones
When I first saw the title to Tayari Jones' newest novel I was immediately intrigued by the title. What makes a marriage "American"? How can a marriage have a nationality? What type of marriage will the author define as an "American" one? Needless to say, reading it was a must.
The novel centers on a young African American couple, Celestial and Roy, whose marriage is immediately tested when Roy experiences what has become all too common in this country, a false accusation that results in imprisonment. While Celestial attempts throughout the years to remain a loyal and committed wife, she finds solace in the arms of a childhood friend and Roy's best man at their wedding, Andre. Celestial and Andre justify their relationship even though she remains legally married to Roy, because Celestial and Roy have over the years had a falling out. Yet in all those years she never files for divorce, which results in Roy remaining hopeful that their marriage can still be saved when his sentenced is reduced and he is finally able to return home.
What ensues upon his return is the wrenching pain of multiple betrayals among all three characters. So what answers, if any, did I find to my initial questions? It was certainly bold for Jones to define this marriage as "American" without any qualifiers at all. It's not an African American marriage, it's an American one, suggesting that while the particular incident that leads to the tension in their marriage might be one that affects people of color more often due to the blatant injustices of the criminal justice system, as portrayed in the novel, the challenges of always redefining and renegotiating love and loyalty within a marriage are ones that are universal to any American marriage.
As a reader you will grapple, as I did, with which of these characters to root for. Could I excuse Celestial and Andre's betrayal? Given some of Roy's behavior toward Celestial while in prison, did I believe he deserved to be betrayed? Quite honestly, I could never make up my mind and that's exactly the kind of novel we need. One that not only engrosses us in a rich story, but that also challenges our own moral assumptions.