Saturday, January 6, 2018

An American Marriage by Tayari Jones: What Rends Asunder

"Wherefore they are no more twain, but one flesh. What therefore God hath joined together, let not man put asunder." Mark 10:9

My first fiction read of 2018 is the highly anticipated An American Marriage by Tayari Jones. It is the story of a young marriage tested by the husband's incarceration for a crime he did not commit. It is an exploration of what endures and what holds us together.

The novel is told through the voices of the couple Roy and Celeste and Roy's best friend and Celeste's childhood soulmate Andre.

Roy and Celeste were married only a year and a half, ready to have a baby. Roy was first generation college, a handsome and charming man on the up-and-up, his whole world ahead of him. Celeste was committed to being an artist when Roy swept her off her feet and into marriage. Roy was glad to "set her down" and supported her art.

All their plans were crushed in an instant when Roy was accused of rape, convicted, and imprisoned. In a series of letters we follow their relationship through the early days of separation. Celeste's lawyer uncle works for justice for Roy. Celeste does not divorce Roy or stop depositing money into his account. But she does break off with him.

Roy's college friend Andre grew up next door to Celeste and has always loved her. Celeste loved Andre like a brother, but kept him at a safe distance. Between their childhood houses is Old Hickey, a centennial tree that represents what lasts. Several years into Roy's sentence Celeste and Andre finally consummate their love into a solid relationship, each still living in their childhood homes next to each other. Celeste has moved on, but feels the guilt of abandoning a man who has lost everything.

These characters are vital and real. And so are the supporting characters, their parents and people who raised them. There are many forms of love, marriage, and families in the story, covering a whole range of human experience. Each reveals what lasts and does not last, the nature of love,  and the many ways love is torn asunder.

The long, simmering set up peaks when Roy is finally released after five years and returns home to see if he has a marriage. It culminates in a desperate scene of conflict and Roy's realization of who he is and is not, and what has and has not endured.

The story is set against the reality of the mass incarceration of black men. I wish that Jones had included more about Roy's trial and prison experience as a black man caught in a justice system stacked against him. It would have helped set up the change in Roy, for I had trouble connecting the dapper ladies man to the violence of his later actions. Still, for readers from a background of white privilege, what is in the book may be enough to open eyes. African Americans already know.

What really sunders Roy and Celeste? Was their love too green? Was their love built on sand and not solid ground? Was Celeste to blame, or Andre? Was it society--racism and a justice system--that failed Roy? Or was it the woman who recognized Roy's face and confused him with the rapist in the dark who attacked her?

In the end, each finds a place to belong, a love that lasts. And that is all any of us really wants from life. To be one flesh in the arms of love.

I received a free book from the publisher through a LibraryThing giveaway.

An American Marriage: A Novel
by Tayari Jones
Algonquin Books
ISBN: 9781616201340

“Tayari Jones displays tremendous writing prowess with An American Marriage, an enchanting novel that succeeds at every level. From the very start, An American Marriage pulls the reader in with gorgeous prose. Even beyond its plot, the story soars. It doesn’t just focus on one instance of a marriage; it explores philosophical and political quandaries, including generational expectations of men and women, the place of marriage in modern society, systemic racism, toxic masculinity, and more. It does so in a gentle, subtle way, avoiding didacticism as it nudges the reader to question their own conventions and ideals. There are rarely novels as timely or fitting as An American Marriage. It brings abstract ideas about race and love down to the material level. The story is gripping, and the characters are unforgettable.”
—Foreword Reviews, starred review