I usually wait a day or two to write a review after finishing a book, but after finishing An American Marriage by Tayari Jones, I have so many emotions that I wanted the feeling I have to be reflected in my review. Honestly, few books leave me with a physical reaction to a book. But this book has my chest tight, my eyes watery, and my heart heavy. To be perfectly honest, I’m a bit surprised by my final reaction to this read because initially, I was having trouble getting into the story. I was lukewarm on the characters. I didn’t dislike them, but I was also having trouble liking them. However, the struggle with whether I liked them or not was fitting by the end because the story doesn’t have a “happy” ending, but it has closure, which I think is better. I will say this book is beautifully written. I found myself loving the language, loving the similes, the comparisons, and the unraveling of complex human relationships that are sometimes beautiful, often messy, and seldom perfect. The book’s synopsis reads:
Newlyweds Celestial and Roy are the embodiment of both the American Dream and the New South. He is a young executive, and she is an artist on the brink of an exciting career. But as they settle into the routine of their life together, they are ripped apart by circumstances neither could have imagined. Roy is arrested and sentenced to twelve years for a crime Celestial knows he didn’t commit. Though fiercely independent, Celestial finds herself bereft and unmoored, taking comfort in Andre, her childhood friend, and best man at their wedding. As Roy’s time in prison passes, she is unable to hold on to the love that has been her center. After five years, Roy’s conviction is suddenly overturned, and he returns to Atlanta ready to resume their life together.
During the first third of the book, I felt like I was gaining into a relationship and lives that I shouldn’t have access to. It felt so deeply personal, probably because roughly 50 pages is just letters between characters, which feels like an exchange I shouldn’t be able to infiltrate. Once I hit the 200-page mark, however, I couldn’t put the book down. I wanted so badly for things to work out, for things to improve, for things to sort themselves out. While this book is very focused on the criminal justice system, race relations in this country, and the problem of being in the wrong place at the wrong time, I think it ultimately portrays how circumstances outside our control cause inadvertent changed and shifts within us that affect our relationships immeasurably and forever in ways we never imagined. Circumstances happen and then we react and sometimes we react imperfectly and that’s a hard thing to expect. What I struggled with while reading was that some characters felt like they didn’t seem to have empathy for Roy, the man who is convicted of and imprisoned for a crime he didn’t commit. I wanted to shake Celestial and Andre and say, “Can’t you see you’re being horrible and lacking understanding?!” But at the end of the day, they make choices that they have to accept and those choices play out how you’d expect for the most part.
I didn’t necessarily love any one character, but I appreciated that they were fleshed out, real, raw, and human. Specifically, it was interesting to watch them fight against stereotypes that were trying to attach to them, stereotypes they thought they’d escaped long ago only to realize that such things weren’t always in their control. There is an exchange between Roy and Andre in which Roy is basically saying that his situation could easily have happened to Andre, and Andre acknowledges this and shakes it off in the same breath. Roy, however, knows that he lived his whole life trying to avoid a certain fate, only to have that fate catch up to him in the worst way.
A theme I loved that’s threaded seamlessly throughout this book is time. The inevitability of it, the malleability of it, having too much, too little, how much time affects things. Time brings distance in ways miles don’t. Time morphs a person, internally and externally. With time, people discover who they are, who they aren’t, love grows and shrivels and fades only to return. I think time, more than anything, reveals to us which path is ours. Roy, throughout the book, segregates time into a “before” “during” and “after.” He clings desperately to his “before” life, his during life is stagnant and unchanging despite everyone not in his situation moving full steam ahead with their lives, and the after is shaded by the reality of before, the expectations developed during, and the fact that nothing is the same after. For Roy, time stands still and though he’s changing he’s certain things are going to be the same. Celestial, by comparison, can’t seem to find a firm grasp on anything related to the “before.” Andre realizes he never fully addressed his feelings, which complicates things. Andre irritated me because despite claiming he knew Roy’s situation was transferrable to him had he been where Roy was when Roy was arrested, he seems to have a bit of a superiority complex. In short, all three characters are so layered, so complex it’s hard to know how to feel until the final page.
As I read the last paragraph of this book, tears filled my eyes. I just felt a deep sadness for the characters. What happened to Roy was so far from his control and even those that should have fiercely defended him and attempted to ease the pain fell away, leaving him even more alone. And yet, Roy, resilient as ever, still digs deep within himself to let go of the perception of the life he imagined for the life that he has after prison. This book has some amazing quotes, so I wanted to share my favorites:
“Much of life is timing and circumstance, I see that now.”
“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.”
“Sometimes when you like where you end up, you don’t care how you got there.”
“Is it love, or is it convenience?… She explained that convenience, habit, comfort, obligation- these are all things that wear the same clothing as love sometimes.”
“Human emotion is beyond comprehension, smooth and uninterrupted, like an orb made of blown glass.”
AND MY FAVORITE
“But mostly my life is good, only it’s a different type of good from what I figured on.”
Have you read this book? If so, what’d you think?!