This book review contains plot details and spoilers from An American Marriage by Tayari Jones. It is intended for readers who have already read this book. You have been warned!!
The Slanted Spines 2020 Booklist reading for March was An American Marriage by Tayari Jones, a 2018 selection for Oprah’s Book Club. In this novel, Celestial and Roy are living out their childhood dreams of success. They’ve been married for just a year when a Roy is arrested for a crime he didn’t commit, and due to a faulty justice system, he spends five years in prison despite his innocence. However, during Roy’s absence from free life, Celestial forms a relationship with their mutual friend, Andre. When Roy is finally released, Roy, Celestial, and Andre find themselves in a complicated love triangle. What is love, and to whom do we owe what?
Tayari Jones has written three novels prior to An American Marriage, her most noteworthy having been Silver Sparrow. She lives in her hometown of Atlanta and teaches creative writing at Emory University.
This may be my second favorite book of 2020, right after Where the Crawdads Sing. I read the first half of this so hungrily that I never stopped to underline anything, which is annoying to present-me, the “me” who has to write a book review about it, but this is also a testament to how invested in the book I was. Side note, I love how all of the Slanted Spines Booklist readings so far have involved court scenes and the justice system.
Anyway, although I really enjoyed this book, I do have a few critiques, so keep reading for my breakdown! (I’m talking about an analytical breakdown, not an emotional breakdown. I’ve had enough of those this month…)
Tayari Jones writes about human emotions so romantically, and this book is full of complicated feelings. She wields a pen creatively, writing from a primal part of her heart—sometimes, in fact, her gut. In one of Roy’s letters to Celestial from prison, he writes:
But now all I have is this paper and this raggedy ink pen. It’s a ballpoint, but they take away the casing so you just have the nib and this plastic tube of ink. I’m looking at it, thinking, This is all I have to be a husband with?
But here I am trying.Page 43
For a book to be focused on the complicated emotions surrounding marriage, love, and heartache, the description of those emotions need to be vivid and well-compared, and Jones does a nice job of this.
Interestingly, this novel is told through a few different lenses. It begins with alternating chapters between Roy’s narration and Celestial’s narration, then once Roy is arrested, the plot is told through their letters to each other while he’s imprisoned. When Roy is released, it returns to their alternating narration, but now with Andre’s perspective thrown into the mix.
One of my biggest critiques about An American Marriage is that it should have only been told in third person, with the brief section containing Roy and Celestial’s first person letters. During the end of the book, the perspective changed so frequently that I often forgot which character was narrating. This may not have been a problem if each character had a distinct voice, but all Celestial, Roy, and Andre told their angles in a very similar style. There was nothing the reader gained through the first person narrators that they couldn’t have gained through a more simple telling via an omniscient third person narrator. Tayari Jones writes beautifully, but I know that Roy and Andre aren’t as emotionally poetic or as eloquent about describing how they feel. As Roy himself said in his first letter to Celestial, “I’m not a man for words. My daddy showed me that you do for a woman” (page 42). It didn’t feel genuine that Roy would write, when visiting his mother’s grave:
I had not cried since I was sentenced and I had humiliated myself before a judge who didn’t care. On that horrible day, my snotty sobbing had merged with Celestial and Olive’s mournful accompaniment. Now I suffered a cappella; the weeping burned my throat like when you vomit up strong liquor. That one word, Mama, was my only prayer as I thrashed on the ground like I was feeling the Holy Ghost, only what I was going through wasn’t rapture.Page 202
So then why write in first person if the narration doesn’t sound like the character’s voice? What’s difficult about writing in first person is that it has to be genuine to the character. Take The Sound and the Fury, for example—when Faulkner writes from Benjy’s perspective, it’s different from Quentin’s narration. Even though Faulkner is a skilled writer, he doesn’t write as himself when he’s telling Benjy’s story—Benjy is mentally challenged and therefore doesn’t use the same vocabulary as Faulkner does, which means when Faulkner writes as Benjy, he has to demonstrate restraint and empathy, restraining himself from writing lavishly and using empathy to see the world from Benjy’s eyes.
In a follow-up essay entitled “This is a Love Story,” Tayari Jones mentions that she wrote this book three times—first, from the perspective of Celestial, which didn’t feel quite right, and a second time from the perspective of Roy, which also didn’t feel quite right. Then, she says she realized it was their story, so in the third writing, she gave all three of them a voice. While I admire her dedication to the character’s integrity, I think she should have explored the idea of a tender third person narrator, who could gently weave in and out of these tragedies.
Jones—in this novel—is trying to thoroughly illustrate the complexities of the relationships between the three main characters, lyrically detailing the contents of their hearts. In order to do this more effectively, she should have written in third person and used all the same insightful language she did through the first person narration. But if Jones really believed that she needed to tell this in alternating first person, then she should have differentiated each character’s voice and speech tendencies more drastically. The voices are just too similar as they are, and it does a disservice to her wonderful writing, the lifelike quality of the characters, and this intriguing story.
Sometimes, to be a better writer, you can’t write “the best writing.” You have to write the most accurate writing to the story you’re telling.
- What was your favorite line or passage from the novel?
- Did you like the different first person perspectives? Were they easy for you to follow?
- What’s your favorite book that features multiple perspectives?
This book has three main characters and a cast of supporting characters. Jones succeeds with these characters—they are lifelike and multifaceted. But I think I may have enjoyed the supporting characters the most. Big Roy is an easy favorite for me because of how sweet and loyal he is, although all of the family characters are great because of the wisdom they’re constantly sharing. (More on this later.)
Because this novel has so many main characters—although there could be an argument made that Andre doesn’t count as a main character—this book review will break down each person’s story arc. I think it’s clear that Jones put more thought into creating Roy and Celestial, but the reader learns a lot about Andre (such as his relationship with his father Carlos) that points to his significance within the book.
Roy. From small town Eloe, Louisiana, Roy is raised by Olive and her husband Big Roy (although Big Roy is not Roy’s biological father, he accepts him as his own son). After high school, he moves to Atlanta for college, where he graduates and earns a corporate job. He is successful by all standard means—he has the house, the job, the wife—until a tragic incident and a mix-up lead to his arrest and incarceration. While he is in prison, some of his encounters are traumatic, such as when another inmate tries to stab him to death, while others are more formative, such as when “Ghetto Yoda” (AKA Roy’s biological father!! Plot twist!) gives him advice.
While at first his letters to Celestial are romantic, after she has an abortion, their arguments increase; the abortion was a mutual decision, but their feelings about their future are more complex than black-and-white. Over his time in jail, she becomes preoccupied and distant, and after countless more disagreements, she writes to him that she no longer wants to be his wife, although she never officially divorces him. When Roy is released, he’s not sure where they stand. Determined to reclaim his wife and the life he knew before prison, he travels to Atlanta where Celestial still lives, and where his key to her house still works. He is desperate, lonely, scarred, but also temperamental and frustrated. She has continued her life without him, but he wants to pick back up five years ago. His anger is apparent when Celestial denies to sleep with him, and he tells her that although he will respect her wishes, he could most definitely do what he wanted to her, flexing his power over her.
In perhaps not his brightest move but definitely one of his most passionate, he ends up attacking Old Hickey, Celestial’s family tree, and also attacking Andre. His frustration is explosive, and after things calm down, Celestial shocks everyone and chooses to stay with Roy, although this doesn’t last long. Her love isn’t genuine, and Roy is still intrigued by Davina, a one-night fling post-prison, and so they part and move on separately.
With Roy, you can observe his maturity throughout the story. He starts off confident and spunky, a mouthy and successful young man, but after prison, he’s more stoic and intense. “He was bigger now than when he lived in this house, his body harder and more muscular, but I recognized his energy, almost on the verge of action… Roy’s face was broader and more lined than when I last saw him…” Celestial describes Roy (page 236). At first, after Roy is released, he is hellbent on his life returning to the way it was five years earlier; his memories are what got him through prison, what gave him hope to keep getting up every day. However, now that he is back in the real world, perhaps the greatest amount of his growth occurs during the turmoil with Celestial, when they finally get to confront each other with their feelings, forced to see each other as they are today, not as how they were in the the past. It’s when they finally do this that they’re able to accept what’s actually best for them, and move on.
Celestial. Born and raised in Atlanta, Celestial grows up to be an artistic and independent woman. Both Roy and Andre understand this quality and are drawn to her for it. “Celestial liked to go her own way and you could tell that from looking at her,” Roy mentions when he first describes her (page 8). This is also one of the first things Andre explains; after Andre says he knew she didn’t belong to him, he adds, “If you knew her, you would know that she never belonged to him [Roy] either. I’m not sure if she even realized it herself, but she’s the kind of woman who will never belong to anyone” (page 96). She is very headstrong and driven about her art—handcrafting baby dolls, a business she calls Poupee’s. Although she loves Roy, they have a fierce tendency to argue with each other, which continues and strains their relationship when he’s in prison. Eventually, after three years, she cannot remain devoted to Roy and breaks up with him, and at some point she turns to her lifelong best friend Andre for romantic support. Their relationship blossoms, which her father disapproves of, but Celestial and Andre attempt to be as respectful towards Roy’s memory as possible. After Roy is released early, she tries to explain her and Andre’s love to Roy, but ultimately (after a lot of drama) she sacrifices her true happiness so that she can help Roy heal.
However, because this book wants to subvert your expectations no matter who you predicted Celestial would choose, in the very last section of the book, the reader finds out that Celestial and Roy mutually break up after they sense a disconnect in their relationship. Celestial returns to Andre, and although she refuses to marry, she does become pregnant with his child.
Five years is a long time, and Celestial changes while Roy’s in prison, too. When he sees her again, he comments, “She was different now, sadder” (page 239). One of the differences in her that bothers Roy is her hair—while before, she wore her hair in a “defiant cloud,” in his absence, Celestial buzzes her hair. “I wanted her back to the way she was when I met her, pretty and a little outrageous” (page 261). Her nature is notably somber in the latter half; when Roy returns, she is often silent or answers in short sentences, whereas in the former half, she is passionate and feisty in their interactions.
Honestly, I’m really not “over” Celestial choosing Roy. I can’t tell if this choice is character growth or character deterioration—she would clearly rather be with Andre, yet is willing to let go of their relationship so that she can give Roy what he wants? “Dre, we have so much… and he has nothing. Not even his mother,” Celestial says to Andre (page 288). She explains that she and Andre will only be heartbroken, whereas Roy is starting from scratch.
So… Let me get this straight… Tayari Jones is telling me that Celestial seriously goes back to the man who said, “with a trace of menace, ‘I could take it if I wanted to’” (page 249)??
Celestial is a firecracker—sensitive and mysterious, albeit, but a firecracker. Celestial speaks of herself in college, “even at nineteen, I was not one to be played with” (page 35). Celestial is the woman who ran down New York City streets in heels after a robber on her first date with Roy. You’re telling me that THAT Celestial is the same Celestial who wrote, “A woman doesn’t always have a choice, not in a meaningful way. Sometimes there is a debt that must be paid, a comfort that she is obliged to provide, a safe passage that must be secured. Every one of us has lain down for a reason that was not love” (page 246)?? For context, Celestial is talking about how she owes her husband sex after he gets out of prison. Now do you see what I’m talking about when I say “character deterioration”?
While I admire her selfless compassion for Roy, it’s clear that she doesn’t truly love Roy despite picking him over Andre. This just doesn’t seem like something Celestial would do. As a woman, so often we are asked to compromise our dreams and desires in exchange to coddle a man’s shortcomings—women have been generally expected to take on the majority of childcare and sacrifice their hobbies to do so, women are often considered “threatening” to a man’s ego if they hold a higher-esteemed career position, and so on. Celestial’s own mother compliments Celestial’s self-empowerment; in a reflection, Celestial recalls how her mother once told her “You have always run toward what you want. Your father always tries to break you of this, but you are just like him, brilliant but impulsive and a tiny bit selfish. But more women should be selfish… Or else the world will trample you” (page 210).
So it’s interesting to me that Jones wrote Celestial’s arc like this: at first driven for her own desires, then cascading into the obligation of a role, as if decided out of guilt (“Guilt seeps in through the cracks in my logic,” she writes, page 111). The years have weathered her, and Celestial emotionally distances herself in order to cope, whittling away at the determination she once was so sure of, but now questions.
Thankfully, this is not the end for Celestial, though. During the epilogue in a letter to Roy, Celestial mentions that she doesn’t want to officially marry Andre, which I think indicates a step in the right direction for Celestial. At an emotional low point halfway through the novel, right when she finds out Roy is being released from prison, she agrees to marry Andre. This is something she isn’t ecstatic about, but seems to be cajoled into accepting. It appears though, after reflection and trying to make it work again with Roy, when she comes out of her failed marriage, she asserts herself and decides she isn’t ready for marriage again, not yet.
Andre. Andre’s arc is less fascinating to me. He’s the typical good guy, “the boy next door” and Celestial’s lifelong best friend. Fortunately, by the end of the novel, his character develops somewhat of a backbone; after crushing on Celestial his whole life and during her marriage, she makes a move on him while Roy is prison, and although he tries to resist, she is everything he has ever wanted in a relationship. Although he feels guilty, Andre is clearly happiest with Celestial, and it’s cute to see.
When Roy is released, Andre and Celestial choose to remain together. Andre travels to Eloe to talk to Roy, but Roy dodges his visit and simultaneously travels to Atlanta to see Celestial. After a sleepover with Big Roy, Andre rejoins Roy and Celestial at the end of the novel, and he literally takes a beating from Roy so that he and Celestial can stay together. (Now that’s commitment.) Whereas he has merely been a supporting character to Celestial’s life, he now lays his life down for the chance to be her lover. Other than bolstering more confidence, though, we see little other growth from Andre; this is to be expected though, because it’s obvious this book is only about him because of his proxy to Roy and Celestial’s narratives.
- Who was your favorite character and why?
- Do you feel like the three main characters are well developed throughout this book?
- How do you feel about Celestial’s character arc?
This is a love story. As I mentioned earlier in this book review, I read Jones’ post-novel essay (titled as such) and she explained how this story, although originally intended to be a fictional commentary on the targeting of young (especially non-white) men and mass incarceration, ultimately turned out to be a love story.
Before I read this book, I didn’t look at the back cover’s summary. Even despite this, I knew that Andre would be a “problem” in Roy and Celestial’s relationship, and so I predicted Celestial and Andre’s hook-up. The plot is straightforward: Roy and Celestial are married, Roy goes to prison for a crime he didn’t commit, Celestial and Andre fall in love, Roy gets out of prison, Andre and Roy fight for Celestial. It’s predictable. The drama is fun though, and it heats up and when Roy starts hacking at Old Hickey in the middle of his rage—I definitely paused to laugh and explain this ridiculous scene to Bryant.
I would have liked another sub-plot. We could count Olive’s passing away and Mr. Davenport disapproving of Celestial’s relationship with Andre as sub-plots, but I think one more intelligently-executed sub-plot would have really elevated this story. It was so focused on the main thread—Roy, Celestial, and Andre all leading up to this moment when they made their final choices—that the plot was a little unexciting unless it was detailing their drama. I would have liked to see some more family issues or external conflict to add another level to the novel, so long as it was integrated into the story in a well-organized manner.
Overall, though, the predictable and simple plot did not detract from the enjoyment of the novel, and this was a pretty successful spin on the typical love triangle dilemma.
Also, I love when books have “Discussion questions” at the end, so I would like us to ponder a few of them here:
- The title of this novel is An American Marriage. Do you feel this title accurately represents the novel? Why or why not? And if you do find the title appropriate, what about the story makes it particularly “American”?
- When Celestial asks Roy if he would have waited for her for more than five years, he doesn’t answer her question but reminds her that, as a woman, she would not have been imprisoned in the first place. Do you feel that his response is valid, and do you think it justifies his infidelity? Do you believe that he would have remained faithful if Celestial had been the one incarcerated? Does this really matter, and if so, why?
- You may have noticed that Tayari Jones does not specify the race of the woman who accuses Roy of rape. How did you picture this woman? What difference does the race of this woman make in the way you understand the novel’s storyline?
Throughout this book, elders’ advice is a recurring element. Roy, Celestial, and Andre refer to “so-and-so used to say” constantly, as though they’ve heard these lessons repeated so many times over the years that they’ve mastered the recitation, if not the application.
Gloria once told me that your best quality is also your worst.Page 210
When it comes to making any complicated decisions, there is often a parental drop of wisdom to be mentioned by the narrator. Thankfully, the three of them all have the guidance of an elder—Olive, Big Roy, and Walter teach Roy, Mr. Davenport and Gloria educate Celestial, and Mr. Davenport, Evie, Carlos (minimally, though), and Big Roy help Andre. Even beyond the grave, Olive’s wise anecdotes come to Roy:
I was at the BP station… when I finally heard what I think was my mama’s voice in my ear. Any fool can up and go. Whenever she started saying what “any fool” could do, she followed up with how a “real man” would handle the problem… She aimed them at me constantly and I did my best to be the real man she had in mind.Page 203
Not to mention, Roy finds an old letter Olive had written him, warning him not to marry Celestial at the time. Meanwhile, Celestial reflects on the advice her own father gave her on their wedding day: “As we danced at my wedding reception, my father had said, ‘Let the man be the man sometimes… At some point you will come to accept your limitations’” (page 225). Perhaps this is the advice she ultimately decides to follow when she makes her choice to stay with Roy.
The characters even bond over old adages like sayings spoken at Baptist funerals; when Roy, discouraged after his first night with Celestial again, calls Davina, she says, “Go on to sleep. Like they say, weeping endures for a night,” to which Roy responds, “But joy comes in the morning” (page 252).
It’s apparent that these phrases bring comfort and clarity to their lives. Roy, Celestial, and Andre deeply respect their parents (with the exception of Carlos) and the lessons they’ve taught them. Walter earns Roy’s respect by dolling out wisdom, always having something insightful to share. In fact, Walter often gives advice that Roy should follow and doesn’t, which gets him into more trouble. When Roy is about to be released from prison, he writes, “According to [Walter], the key is to wipe your mind clean. The future is what I should think about” (page 124). Is that not exactly what gets Roy in trouble—trying to recreate the past with Celestial? (Whoooo, I just got The Great Gatsby flashbacks! Hellooo, Jay and Daisy!) If Roy could have let go of the past, he wouldn’t have instigated with Celestial and Andre and caused a huge scene.
Although the three main characters may have been better off following the wisdom of their elders right off the bat, it seems that they may have not sufficiently learned their lessons. If Roy had listened to his mother and not married Celestial, if Celestial had listened to her father and called off her relationship with Andre, if Andre had listened to Big Roy and given Celestial and Roy a year’s worth of time—sure, it may have been wiser of them, but the lessons accompanied with their choices wouldn’t be as solidified. Often, the bite-sized phrase is the reward for a lifetime of mistakes one learns from, and it’s up to each individual to find out how we arrive at these nuggets of guidance.
There is so much to dissect about this book, which is why, despite my critiques, I am intrigued by it; Jones created a dynamic, interesting work of literature that is ripe for discussion and analysis, and the more I add to this book review, the more I realize how much text there is to unpack. That’s why this earns a well-deserved spot as my #2 favorite read of 2020.
Thanks for reading! Now, what did you think?
Read along with Slanted Spines! At the beginning of the year, I posted the Slanted Spines 2020 Booklist, an assigned book for each month! The April book is Carrie Pilby by Caren Lissner, so if you want to join in the discussion, check it out and read it before the last Friday of April!
Also, please feel free to jump in on past books! You can read my other Book Reviews here. I’m always happy to talk about literature!