November 2021 Open Book Group – An American Marriage by Tayari Jones

Thank you to Trish for moderating An American Marriage by Tayari Jones.

Black, university educated newlyweds Celestial and Roy are the embodiment of the American Dream. He is a young executive, and she is an artist on the brink of an exciting career. One day they are ripped apart by circumstances neither could have imagined. Roy is arrested and sentenced to twelve years for rape a crime Celestial knows he didn’t commit. In prison Roy and Celestial exchanged long letters pouring out their feelings while trying to hold onto a love tested too early in their marriage. Devastated and unmoored, Celestial finds herself struggling to remain faithful, taking comfort in Andre, their closest friend. When Roy’s conviction is suddenly overturned, he returns home ready to resume their life together

Secondary characters include Roy’s mother, Olive who dies of lung cancer while Roy is in prison and his stepfather, Big Roy. Roy discovers that his previously absent biological father is a career criminal. He is housed in the same jail as Roy. Walter works the system so he can share a cell with Roy. They become close. Celestial’s father Frank Davenport made a large sum of money from a business deal allowing the family upper-middle-class aspirations. His financial backing helps set up Celestial’s retail business selling handcrafted dolls. He also funds Roy’s successful legal appeals against his conviction.

The first question many of us asked was why is this an American marriage? The novel recounts a marriage breakdown, triggered by a stressful event, followed by a classic love triangle. Why is that especially American? Some felt the letter writing was sentimental. Roy meeting his biological daddy in prison seemed too neat and implausible. Were we in chick lit territory? Roy is incarcerated in the brutal environment of an American prison, yet he never mentions the deprivations in his letters to Celestial. White-colour financial fraudster Chris Atkins’ frank memoir A Bit Of A Stretch, about his time in Wandsworth goal, was referenced.

One member disagreed. They found the letters an effective device to describe the marriage breakdown. Early letters were full of support from Celestial. Over the years their pace slowed finally stopping altogether as Celestial withdrew from Roy into a relationship with Andre. They noted that the letters would be censored by the prison authorities. It is very unlikely Roy would have written about his day-to-day life. Some wondered if Roy and Celestial’s marriage would never have worked. Roy sought a traditional marriage with clearly defined male and female roles. Celestial did not see herself as a homemaker. Her ambition was to be a businesswoman selling her dolls. Ironically Roy’s incarceration allowed her to follow her dreams.

One member commented they would like to know more about the alleged crime, the terms of his imprisonment and release. Further group discussion reflected that Jones was writing about what she knew – systemic racism, Given this, the unsubstantiated arrest and detention of a black man was not a remarkable occurrence. By not focussing on the injustice, she was reinforcing its normality. The novel was written before George Floyd‘s death heightened our awareness of the realities of being black in America. An American Marriage goes deeper. It contrasts the protagonists more positive experiences in New York compared to those in the southern states of their birth. This is a book about an American marriage because it is deeply grounded in the America of today.

We noted that subsidiary characters showcased many other social issues facing this minority community; a minority of 38 million one member pointedly reminded us. Further. when wealth was promised by successful business deals, or university education, status defined by the white world was elusive.

Another member, who had spent considerable time in the US, confirmed how strongly the history of race relations in southern states affects its current communities. New Yorker Andre was shocked at the difference once he crossed the Louisiana border.

We were stumped by the epilogue. The resolution of the love triangle could easily have been played out in the final chapters.

Those of us who clicked on OBG Zoom lukewarm about Jones’ novel clicked off with plenty of food for thought. OBG isn’t long enough quipped one member! Stop while you’re ahead laughed the Chair. And so, we did.

Thank you to Trish for moderating An American Marriage by Tayari Jones.

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