As someone who spends way too much time on Twitter, I’ve been plagued with reading countless arguments about whether it’s a good thing or the “right” thing for a woman to continue a relationship with a man who goes to prison. Each side of said argument thinks they’re right and the other is wrong, naturally, and no one ever considers that there really isn’t a right answer. Your man finds himself behind bars due to his own actions and whether you stay or leave, there’s going to be someone who thinks you’re a fool. You’re either an idiot for keeping this convict in your life, or you’re selfish because you decided not to tie yourself down to an incarcerated person. But what is a woman supposed to do if her man ends up in prison not because of his own actions, but because he really, truly, was in the wrong place at the wrong time? Is she a fool for standing by his side, or should she get out while she can and move on with her life? Tayari Jones describes the demise of Roy Hamilton and Celestial Davenport’s young marriage in her novel An American Marriage when Roy is falsely accused of rape and sentenced to twelve years in prison.
Told primarily between two cities (Atlanta, Georgia and fictional Eloe, Louisiana) and from three different perspectives (Roy, Celestial, and their mutual friend Andre), Jones shows what happens when a marriage is suddenly derailed and the couple is forced to deal with that, but not knowing exactly how to do so. A large portion of the book is told through letters between Celestial, up-and-coming artist who is suddenly without her husband, and Roy, serving another man’s sentence. I absolutely loved this part of the book; the way Jones showed the decline of their marriage over time with their letters was perfect. She doesn’t put dates in the letters, but you know a lot of time is passing and with each letter you can feel the distance between Celestial and Roy growing, even by something as simple as the way they sign their names.
Personally, I think Jones wrote a perfect book. There isn’t a single thing I would change about it. Some argue the plot, specifically Roy’s false imprisonment in the age of DNA testing, doesn’t make sense, but I didn’t care about that. This book wasn’t about Roy’s sentence, but the effect it had on his marriage. Jones is also a beautiful writer, and her many nods to Atlanta landmarks like Cascade Road (the street I grew up on) and the big chicken were little nuggets of familiarity and happiness in a book that really isn’t happy or familiar at all. I can admit that’s probably my homesickness talking, though. I knew Jones was from Atlanta when I decided to read the book, but I wasn’t expecting her references to the city to be as personal as they were, and that just made me love the book even more. I also loved the parallel Jones draws between Roy and Celestial’s marriage and Roy’s parents’ marriage. With Roy’s parents, Jones created a relationship so strong, where the couple was so steadfastly dedicated to one another, that it brought tears to my eyes. I literally cried. I don’t know how a person so perfectly captures what I imagine a strong marriage to be like with words, but I do think Jones did that with Roy’s parents’ marriage.
While I can’t say I disliked anything about the book’s plot, I certainly did dislike the characters: Roy, Celestial, and especially their friend Andre. They all annoyed me at some point. Andre actually annoyed me constantly. However, I think my dislike of each main character is part of the “there isn’t a right answer” point I brought up earlier. They all acted stupidly at some point in the novel, but what exactly is the right way to act when you’re thrown into a completely foreign situation that you never anticipated being in? There’s no right way to act, and there are wrong ways to react, though wrong will certainly vary from person to person. I believe Jones wanted to show that the effects of incarceration, especially a wrongful incarceration, are detrimental, no matter how you try to make things work. Eventually, the effect of prison will take hold and there isn’t anything you can do to go back to the way things were. It’s a daunting story, but there is a “happy” ending in knowing that the characters do indeed survive this ordeal, even if it may not be in the way you want them to.
Such a beautifully written story was An American Marriage that I can’t wait to see what Ms. Jones produces next. She is also the author of Silver Sparrow, which I plan to read… eventually (my to-read list is constantly growing and there’s really no method to how I choose which book to read next). I have a feeling I’ve found a new favorite author, which is very exciting for me! I hope anyone reading this post will give her work a chance as well.
I’ll end this post by leaving some of my favorite quotes from An American Marriage so you all can see what kind of talent I’ve been talking about. Enjoy!
“In poker, you get five cards. Three of them you can swap out, but two are yours to keep: family and native land.”
“It’s like the difference between a raw egg and a scrambled egg. It’s the same thing, but it’s not the same at all.”
“It’s like eating a butterscotch still sealed in the wrapper.”
“Even while she wore his ring, she wasn’t his wife. She was merely a married woman.”