Like many books that I pick up, An American Marriage by Tayari Jones ended up on my to-read list after I heard a story on NPR. Interviewed by Karen Grigsby-Bates last February, Jones said she had done a lot of research on criminal justice and race to prepare to write a book but that nothing was clicking until she went home to visit her mom over the holidays and overheard a conversation in an Atlanta mall:
JONES: The woman was beautifully dressed, and the young man, he looked fine. But she looked great. And she said to him, Roy, you know you wouldn’t have waited on me for seven years. And he said, I don’t know what you’re talking about. This wouldn’t have happened to you in the first place.
This moment captures the essence of the novel. Celestial and Roy have been married for barely a year when while visiting Roy’s parents in Louisiana, Roy is falsely accused of raping a white woman and is sentenced to twelve years in prison. Up until that moment, they were an African-American couple on the rise in Atlanta. Roy had a promising business career that allowed Celestial, an artist, to stay home and focus on her creative work. All that comes crashing down on a Labor Day Weekend and it happens within the first chapter of the novel.
From then on, Jones is interested in telling the story from three points of view—Roy, Celestial, and Andre. Andre is Celestial’s childhood friend and though he was actually the one to introduce Roy and Celestial at Morehouse, he has never managed to shake his feelings for Celestial. As you might expect, this leads to complications as Roy serves out his sentence. Though we spend time with Celestial and Andre, I feel like this is Roy’s story and it’s the one that’s both the most heartbreaking and inspiring.
Though Jones explores issues of race and class and the criminal justice system, this novel never loses sight of its characters and their struggles and the complexities inherent in their relationships. It’s a common story and an uncommon story all at the same time and one well worth reading.