Thursday, October 17, 2019

Book 203: An American Marriage



"We climbed into the small bed, a little buzzed from our jerry-rigged cocktails. Agreeing that the bedspread was suspect, we kicked it to the floor and lay facing each other. Lying there, tracing his brow bone with my fingers, I thought of my parents and even Roy’s. Their marriages were cut from less refined but more durable cloth, something like cotton-sack burlap, bound with gray twine. How superior Roy and I felt that night in this rented room of our own, enjoying the braid of our affection. I am ashamed at the memory and the hot blood heats my face, even if I’m only dreaming."

Dates read: January 20-23, 2018

Rating: 7/10

What does it mean, to be married to someone? Obviously, I'm not referring to the obvious stuff about fidelity, loyalty, support, etc. But how much of you is for them, and how much remains for you alone? Is it okay to keep secrets, even little ones? What amount of bad behavior is "enough" to get you an out clause? If you need to sacrifice yourself for the other person, how long are you expected to do so? I've only been married for a little over three years now, so I can't even pretend to be able to answer any of them, but what we owe each other is a question I'm sure we'll spend a lifetime answering.

The question of what marriage means, what it binds you to and entitles you to, is probably the most fundamental one at issue in Tayari Jones' An American Marriage. It's not the only one, though. The book follows Roy and Celestial, a young black couple married about a year and a half when we first meet them. Their future seems so bright: he's a promising marketing executive, she's an artist beginning to find success with her doll-making. They're thinking about having a baby soon when they leave their home in Atlanta and drive to rural Louisiana to spend the weekend with Roy's parents. Celestial has a bad feeling, but they write it off to nerves. It is the first night they're there that their whole world changes.

Roy is accused of raping a white woman, and even though he's innocent, he's sentenced to 12 years. They immediately appeal, but of course appeals take time, and while that process is ongoing Roy's continued imprisonment leaves both of them uprooted. After five years, the appeal is ultimately successful, but that time has left both Roy and Celestial different people, and they can't just pick up where they left off.

Any more than that about the plot probably reveals more than would be preferable...this is a book that's best to savor as it reveals itself to you (and usually I'm pretty pro-spoiler, but this does really feel like an exception). The truth is that there's not a lot of "plot" per se, but there's enough, and the work that Jones does with character and the way she uses those characters to poke at our understanding of powerful themes like marriage, and family more broadly, are brilliant. The instinct to find a "good guy" and a "bad guy", when two people are in conflict, is so strong, but Jones refuses us that easy perspective. They're both the bad guy. They're both the good guy. They're both people who've spent the last five years suffering, and trying to deal with that suffering, in their own ways.

While there is a lot to really like here and this is definitely a good book, I'll be honest: it never quite crossed that line from good into great for me. I got more out of pondering it after I finished it than I got out of reading it, if that makes sense. And also, I had a small qualm with a writing choice Jones made: while the book is primarily told from the perspectives of Roy and Celestial, there's a third person who also gets point-of-view chapters. This person is important to the narrative and it wasn't that those portions were inferior or anything, but I would have preferred that the focus remained on the central couple exclusively. That being said, this is still a book that is well-worth your time and energy, and I'd recommend it to all readers.

One year ago, I was reading: We Are Not Ourselves (review to come)

Two years ago, I was reading: Player Piano

Three years ago, I was reading: The Executioner's Song

Four years ago, I was reading: Reservation Road

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