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Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 177

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An American Marriage is a quasi-epistolary novel told through letters and from different viewpoints of the main characters, Celestial and Roy. Celestial and Roy are a young, successful black couple whose already tempestuous marriage is upended by an accusation of rape against Roy, which ultimately proves to be false. However, in a reflection of America’s (unjust) criminal justice system, Roy is charged with the crime and sentenced to 12 years in prison. As a result, Celestial and Roy are left to maintain their marriage through letters and only the occasional visits.

Complicating their chance of resuming their marriage after Roy’s release from prison is Andre, a mutual friend of Roy and Celestial, who forms a deeper relationship with Celestial in Roy’s absence. Even before Roy is released from prison, the letters between Celestial and him reflect a growing distance and the difficulty of nurturing a marriage without sharing a similar space. While the novel is mostly occupied with themes of fidelity and commitment, it also tackles smaller themes, like the parent–child relationship and forgiveness.

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Last Updated on January 11, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2127

Author: Tayari Jones (b. 1970)

Publisher: Algonquin Books (Chapel Hill, NC). 320 pp.

Type of work: Novel

Time: Present day

Locales: Eloe and Jemison, Louisiana; Atlanta, Georgia

Tayari Jones examines race, class, gender, and the nature of love and relationships in this deeply affecting novel, which focuses on an African American couple whose young marriage is upended after the husband is wrongly imprisoned.

Principal characters

Roy Hamilton, a black man who is wrongly imprisoned for rape

Celestial Davenport, his wife, an artist

Andre Tucker, he and Celestial’s friend

Roy “Big Roy” Hamilton Sr., his father

Olive Hamilton, his mother

Franklin Davenport, his father-in-law

Gloria Davenport, his mother-in-law

The specter of imprisonment looms large in the lives of African Americans all over the United States, which boasts the highest incarceration rate in the world. According to statistics posted on the website of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), black Americans made up at least one-third of the US prison population in 2014 and are five times more likely to be arrested than white people. Such racial disparities have long plagued the US criminal justice system but have generally come to be accepted as a disturbing yet often inescapable part of the African American experience. This frightening cultural landscape forms the backdrop of Tayari Jones’s fourth novel, An American Marriage (2018), which unflinchingly explores what happens to those who are directly affected by that historically unjust system, from the individuals imprisoned to the families, friends, and loved ones left behind.

The premise of Jones’s novel treads familiar ground. Roy Hamilton and Celestial Davenport are a young, upwardly mobile black professional couple living in Atlanta, Georgia. Roy is an ambitious, successful representative for a textbook company, and Celestial is a talented and promising artist who specializes in creating high-end bespoke baby dolls called “poupées.” They have been married for only eighteen months, but their partnership is already on shaky ground, dogged by problems not unusual to other new couples. Celestial has suspicions about Roy’s fidelity, but she is still grateful for his support and encouragement. Regardless, the couple are undeniably in love, bound by a palpable passion for each other that is “still burning blue hot,” as Roy relates in the opening pages.Courtesy of Algonquin Books

That love is put to the ultimate test, however, after Roy and Celestial visit Roy’s parents, Big Roy and Olive, in his fictional hometown of Eloe, Louisiana, during Labor Day weekend. The visit is already an uneasy one for Celestial, who has not exactly been warmly embraced by Roy’s traditional, working-class mother. Unlike Roy, Celestial hails from a privileged background. Her father, Franklin Davenport, is a former high school chemistry teacher who earned millions after inventing a compound that aids in the processing of orange juice, and her mother, Gloria, worked as an assistant superintendent of a school district. She wears “her pedigree like the gloss on a patent-leather shoe” and exhibits a fierce independent streak that, in Olive’s eyes, limits her potential for motherhood.

Mother-in-law issues aside, Celestial senses that something is indeed wrong at the outset of the drive to Roy’s native Eloe. Roy and Celestial spend the day and have dinner at Roy’s parent’s house, but instead of sleeping there, they decide to stay at a local hotel. There, the two get into a minor squabble after Roy drops a major revelation about his personal life. To cool off, Roy makes a run to the ice machine, where he has a chance encounter with a woman his mother’s age. The woman is impaired by a shoulder injury, prompting Roy to help her with her ice and other matters before returning to his room. Roy and Celestial reconcile but their sleep is violently interrupted after police officers burst into their hotel room and arrest Roy, who is falsely accused of rape by the woman at the ice machine. Despite vigorously maintaining his innocence, Roy is ultimately convicted and sentenced to twelve years in prison. © Nina Subin

It is here where Jones subverts reader expectations. Rather than easily turning her novel into a polemic about the institutional oppression of black men, she opts for a more personal and intimate story, one that reveals the devastating effects of forced separation on a married couple. Whatever problems Roy and Celestial had before his wrongful imprisonment are exacerbated tenfold. After opening the novel with separate chapters told from Roy and Celestial’s first-person perspectives, Jones chronicles the couple’s slow and painful dissolution in the form of letters between the two, an effective and practical creative choice that provides some of the most powerful passages in the novel. The author breathes new life into the lost art form by illustrating the difficulty in translating visceral feelings and emotions into words.

This process proves especially difficult for Roy. In his first letter to Celestial from Louisiana’s Parson Correctional Center, he writes, “A love letter is supposed to be like music or like Shakespeare, but I don’t know anything about Shakespeare. But for real, I want to tell you what you mean to me, but it’s like trying to count the seconds of a day on your fingers and toes.” Roy admittedly values actions more than words and his attempts at expressing the latter are at times awkward. As more time passes, however, his letters painfully reflect the helplessness and whirlwind of uncertainty felt by a man unjustly held in prison against his will.

Much of Roy’s uncertainty stems from his relationship with Celestial, who herself does not know what the future holds for them. “I’m alone in a way that’s more than the fact that I am the only living person within these walls,” she writes in her first letter, composed at her and Roy’s kitchen table. “Up until now, I thought I knew what was and wasn’t possible. Maybe that’s what innocence is, having no way to predict the pain of the future.” Although shattered by this unfortunate turn of events, Celestial still has career ambitions of her own and is eager to realize them. Jones, consequently, poses an important question to readers that lies at the heart of her novel: should a wife be allowed to pursue her dreams and aspirations, regardless of circumstances surrounding her husband, however horrible they may be?

Early during the novel’s epistolary section, it is apparent to readers that the answer to this question, at least as far as Celestial is concerned, is emphatically that she should be allowed to. In the wake of Roy’s incarceration, Celestial dives headlong into her art and it is not long before she graduates from private commissions to a public retail space; she is profiled in Ebony magazine after winning a contest for a prison-inspired doll. In the interim, Celestial finds solace in her best friend and confidant, Andre, whom she has known since she was three months old. Andre was Roy’s dormitory neighbor at Morehouse College, in Atlanta, and was the person who first introduced him to Celestial, who attended nearby Spelman College. It would be four years after that initial meeting, however, before Roy and Celestial started dating seriously.

Although Roy has long been under the impression that Celestial and Andre’s relationship is a platonic one, that status is repeatedly called into question as the novel progresses. Letters and visits from Celestial become increasingly irregular, and at one point, Roy is forced to reach out to her father after going several months without hearing from her. Lost in a cloud of agonizing uncertainty, Roy turns to his older cellmate, Walter, for advice and comfort. Besides their relationship, Jones largely does not delve into the minutiae of prison life (though poignant descriptions, such as Roy’s efforts to secure a pear he deeply craved, highlight his struggle), instead focusing mostly on Roy and Celestial’s dissolving marriage.

Significant plot developments are gradually revealed through their correspondence, and eventually, Celestial writes Roy a letter explaining that she can no longer be his wife, after which Roy breaks off communication with her. Roy serves a total of five years in prison before having his conviction suddenly overturned, thanks in part to the efforts of his lawyer, Mr. Banks, who is a close friend of Celestial’s family. When Roy is released, it has been some time since he last talked to Celestial. However, because she has yet to divorce him, he is still hopeful that their marriage can be salvaged.

It is at this point in the novel that Jones introduces a third narrator in Andre, who immediately sheds insight into what has become of his relationship with Celestial. “My affection for her is etched onto my body,” he confesses, “like the Milky Way birthmark scoring my shoulder blades.” Celestial and Andre, readers learn, have indeed become lovers during Roy’s time in prison and have spent at least two years together. Both are beset with guilt after receiving news of Roy’s impending release, but they remain committed to each other, so much so that the two, at Andre’s urging, get engaged. News of their engagement, however, is met with protest from Celestial’s father during an uncomfortable Thanksgiving Day dinner. The rest of Jones’s novel alternates between the perspectives of Andre, Celestial, and Roy as each character pleads their case to the reader, filling in more backstory along the way.

Jones, who studied race and the American criminal justice system during a fellowship at Harvard University, has said that she got the idea for An American Marriage after witnessing a real-life confrontation between a couple during a routine trip to an Atlanta shopping mall. A man named Roy had ostensibly spent the previous seven years in prison and was calling out a woman, perceived to be his estranged wife or girlfriend, for being unfaithful to him during that time. Struck by the pained intensity of their argument, Jones used this incident as a starting point for what became an epic love story set against the modern realities of racial injustice.

Similar to Jones’s previous works—Leaving Atlanta (2002), The Untelling (2005), and Silver Sparrow (2011)—the novel, which took six years to complete, is held together on the strength of its developed characters, namely its three central protagonists. Through the use of the first-person perspective, readers are allowed firsthand insight into their thoughts and actions. Torn by conflicting desires and intentions, Roy, Celestial, and Andre are all indeed flawed and imperfect, but they speak to the reader with an urgency and conviction that highlight the complexity of their situation. By design, Jones makes it hard for readers to pick sides, as her protagonists are afforded varying degrees of understanding. But it is the novel’s ambiguous sense of culpability that makes it “so compelling,” as critic Ron Charles opined in his Washington Post review.

While many of the novel’s plot revelations are a little too on the nose, arriving neatly and perfectly packaged like Celestial’s life-like poupée dolls, its flaws are far outweighed by its strengths, which prompted widespread praise from critics. In a representative review for the Los Angeles Review of Books, author Tina McElroy Ansa called the novel “truly masterful” and commented that it “is like a roller coaster that gains speed and intensity through turn after turn of information and backstory, illuminating all our human frailty and complexity along the way.” With An American Marriage, which was long-listed for the 2018 National Book Award for Fiction, Jones trenchantly probes the various facets of marriage and the multitude of challenges it brings. More importantly, she offers readers a chilling glimpse into what it is like to be a black married couple in America, for whom the threat of injustice lurks at every turn.

Review Sources

  • Review of An American Marriage, by Tayari Jones. Kirkus Reviews, 12 Nov. 2017, www.kirkusreviews.com/book-reviews/tayari-jones/an-american-marriage/. Accessed 19 Aug. 2018.
  • Review of An American Marriage, by Tayari Jones. Publishers Weekly, 11 Dec. 2017, www.publishersweekly.com/978-1-61620-134-0. Accessed 19 Aug. 2018.
  • Ansa, Tina McElroy. “Injustice and Intimacy in Tayari Jones’s An American Marriage.” Review of An American Marriage, by Tayari Jones. Los Angeles Review of Books, 6 Feb. 2018, lareviewofbooks.org/article/injustice-and-intimacy-in-tayari-joness-an-american-marriage/#!. Accessed 19 Aug. 2018.
  • Charles, Ron. “Oprah’s Newest Book Club Pick: An American Marriage, by Tayari Jones.” Review of An American Marriage, by Tayari Jones. TheWashington Post, 30 Jan. 2018, www.washingtonpost.com/entertainment/books/an-african-american-couple-torn-apart-by-the-justice-system/2018/01/30/eab5bd02-0524-11e8-8777-2a059f168dd2_story.html. Accessed 19 Aug. 2018.
  • Watts, Stephanie Powell. “A Marriage Upended, a Life Destroyed.” Review of An American Marriage, by Tayari Jones. The New York Times, 6 Feb. 2018, www.nytimes.com/2018/02/06/books/review/american-marriage-tayari-jones.html. Accessed 19 Aug. 2018.
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