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Family dynamics, racism, and an unjust legal system are exposed.

An American Marriage - Tayari Jones

An American Marriage: A novel, Tayari Jones, author; Sean Crisdon, Elsa Davis, narrators

Three friends are caught up in a love triangle that threatens to tear them apart. Andre Maurice Tucker introduces Celestial Gloriana Davenport to Roy Othaniel Hamilton Jr. Andre and Celestial are neighbors living in an affluent area of successful people. They grew up together and are the dearest of friends. Roy grew up in a different economic situation, but with honest, hard working parents who did the best they could to provide him with everything he could need. Each of these characters had a past and many secrets. Were Andre and Celestial just friends? How close were they really? Roy’s background and parentage was up for debate. Celestial left Howard University after an incident. Why did she leave?

Roy falls in love with Celestial and they decide to marry. Is it possible for someone with a bit of a roving eye to be faithful? Can two people from completely different backgrounds overcome their differences? After visiting Roy’s parents, Roy and Celestial have a fight and wind up sleeping in a motel instead of in his parent’s home in Eloe. While there, he goes to the ice machine and tells a strange woman about his fight with his wife. Later that night, the police burst into Roy and Celestial’s room and arrest him for the rape of the woman in room 206, the woman he met at the ice machine. She is positive that he is the man who attacked her.

Although he has an alibi, since he was in bed, sleeping with his wife, he is sent away for 12 years. Roy had been an up and coming executive. His career path is destroyed by his incarceration and he is helpless to do anything about it but file appeals. Celestial’s uncle represents him honestly and earnestly, but wrongful convictions of black men are not uncommon. The author introduces us to his life in prison. After several different cellmates, he finally gets a permanent one, Othaniel Jenkins. Imagine his surprise when he learns the true identity of the man who shares his cell, a man who makes it his business to keep him safe during his term of imprisonment.

The reader also follows Celestial’s successful rise as an entrepreneur producing her handmade dolls. Her store thrives while Roy remains behind bars. Many of her poupee dolls are made in Roy’s image as he had inspired her to believe in herself and go into business. Do the dolls represent her love for him. As she makes other dolls, in the image of others, is her love for him diminishing? She doesn’t reveal her husband’s unjust situation.

Observing Andre as he stands by both Roy and Celestial, one has to wonder if platonic relationships really do exist. He has always been there for Celestial and he remains by her side, encouraging her and supporting her through this difficult time, but is that all he is doing?

A window is also opened up onto the family dynamics of such a tragedy. It not only affects Roy, it affects his family and Celestial’s. Celestial has difficulty dealing with Roy’s imprisonment, keeping Roy’s situation hidden from her business contacts, visiting him less and less as the trauma of the visits destroy her emotionally. Is she ashamed, even though she knows he is innocent? Is she afraid of the judgment of others? The stress of this false accusation falls on the shoulders of all those who are intimately involved with him and the consequences are far-reaching. In some instances, keeping silent protects them, in others it condemns them.

This book is also about how men and women respect their marriage vows, how they honor their spouses. It is about how relationships are interpreted, and this interpretation crosses color boundaries. Each of the characters moves the goalpost a bit farther when it comes to morality and ethics, in order to suit themselves, rationalizing their behavior with flimsy excuses they convince themselves are justified. This book is about marriage, the beginning, the middle and the end. This book exposes the even playing field regardless of background, culture, or race. It illuminates the difficulty of a single life, with and also without a child, but it also shows that it can successfully be dealt with by dedicated parents and determined men and women.  It is also about the lightness with which some men and women approach their marriage promises and their own sexual behavior, while they ignore the consequences of having a frivolous moment of pleasure. The author’s writing style brought the story to life, painting a clear picture of the lives of these characters. The reader will feel their frustration, joy, pain and anger. The reader will envision the contrast of prison life and the life of freedom, side by side.

I found Celestial to be rather selfish, a bit spoiled, but also self possessed. She chose to sometimes satisfy her own needs first, as she put aside the needs of others. Roy was alternately tender and sensitive, while underneath he was also arrogant and proud with a hidden volatility. He had some very unreal expectations and could be described as an accident waiting to happen, but in prison, all he had were hopes and dreams of a different future than his present state. Andre, I found, contained his feelings, keeping them hidden and in control until he couldn’t. Then it could portend disaster.

Celestial’s parents were both educated and successful. She was the apple of her father’s eye and he refused her very little. Andre’s mom raised him alone from the time he was a small boy. Her husband cheated on her and she threw him out. He knew his dad, but wasn’t that close to him since he had remarried and had begun a new life, creating another family. Roy was adopted by his stepfather and didn’t really know who his biological father was. He had abandoned his mother when she discovered her pregnancy, and he promptly disappeared. His parents adored him and worked hard to provide him with a better life and future than theirs. Each of the characters had personal ghosts and issues to overcome.

When someone goes to prison, however, not only the life of the incarcerated victim is interrupted. Those left behind are forced to continue on with their lives without him. As hard as it is for the prisoner, especially one wrongfully convicted, it is hard on those who support the one locked in, the one who lost his freedom. They have to make sure the prisoner is safe, has a lawyer working on appeals, and has enough money for the necessities of life behind bars. They have to keep that prisoner’s spirits up, as well.

This novel is not only about a marriage in all of its stages, it is about devotion, fidelity, morality, upward mobility, racism and coping. It is about trust and love, and perhaps the ability to learn to trust and love again. The book really levels the playing field between the white world and the world of color, laying waste to many stereotypical beliefs about black life and culture and makes the reader more aware of the similarities between the two. The writing style of the author leads the reader directly into the minds of the characters as one chapter after another spits out their own words as their lives play out, sometimes concurrently and sometimes separately. Each family member tries in his/her own way to succeed and fulfill their obligations and commitments for whatever reason may motivate them.

As the letters between Roy and Celestial grew more distant in time and in type of message, their forms of address, including the use of their pet names and endearments for each other grew cooler. Did it predict a change in their relationship? Was one growing without the other, or were both growing differently away from or toward the other.

The narrators did an excellent job of portraying the nature of each character without getting in the way of an authentic presentation.