An American Marriage by Tayari Jones

Warning, if you loved An American Marriage by Tayari Jones (and that’s everyone, including Barack Obama), look away now.

I am in the minority. Other than the premise, I didn’t like anything about this book.

Newlyweds, Celestial and Roy, are the embodiment of the ‘American Dream’ (and the ‘New South’, which doesn’t mean much to me but I’m sure does for a US audience). They live in Atlanta, where Roy is an executive and Celestial, an emerging artist. Their life falls apart when Roy is arrested and sentenced to twelve years for a violent crime that Celestial knows he didn’t commit. Alone, Celestial begins to rely on Andre, her childhood friend and the man that introduced her to Roy. After five years, Roy’s conviction is overturned, and he expects to resume his life with Celestial, only to find that she has not been able to sustain her love for him.

The story is predictable, which is largely the point of the book. African Americans are incarcerated at a far greater rate than white Americans, and the ramifications of jail time are significant for the individuals rebuilding their lives and their families. Season 3 of the podcast Serial explored this very issue, providing horrifying insights into the inequities of the American justice system.

“That’s your fate as a black man. Carried by six or judged by twelve.”

Although An American Marriage provides a broad commentary on life in the ‘New South’, it is essentially a character-driven story, and this is where my enjoyment ended. Basically, I didn’t like Roy (note that liking a character is not essential for my enjoyment of a book). He was a chauvinistic, selfish, hypocritical, impulsive man-child. His attitude toward women was deplorable (his infidelities were dismissed as meaningless dalliances; he pressured women into unprotected sex; and had the belief that as the ‘man’, Celestial should do what he wanted). Is this the type of man that represents the ‘New South’? There’s nothing to aspire to in Roy.

There was an opportunity for Jones to say something about relationships between fathers and sons, particularly through the lens of African Americans (although my lens has been sharpened by the incomparable Ta-Nehisi Coates). However, aside from the character of Big Roy, who was tenderly portrayed, the relationships lacked emotional depth and context. Clearly, the men in the story know what being a ‘good man’ entails. None of them, with the exception of Big Roy, do much to show it when it counts. Is it because it’s easier to ask forgiveness than it is to ask permission? Or is it because the ‘system’ is against them from the outset?

I don’t believe that blood makes a family; kin is the circle you create, hands held tight. There is something to shared genetics, but the question is, what exactly is that something? It matters that I didn’t grow up with my father. It’s kind of like having one leg that’s a half inch shorter than the other. You can walk, but there will always be a dip.

There were some style issues for me – there’s only so many “Yes ma’ams” and “y’alls” I can read in one passage of dialogue, without it feeling overdone. There were also a couple of points in the plot that seemed farfetched.

The thing that enticed me to read this book – would you stay faithful to your partner if they were jailed for any length or time, and how? – was pretty much taken off the table by Jones early in the story, leaving me not wondering much at all, and certainly not caring about the fate of the characters.

2/5 As I said, minority.

If my childhood were a sandwich, there would be no meat hanging off the bread. We had what we needed and nothing more. “And nothing less,” my mama would have said, and then wrapped me in one of her lemon-drop hugs.

I don’t know what a lemon-drop hug is but I do know what a lemon drop martini is (delicious).

As part of the 20 Books of Summer reading challenge, I’m comparing the Belfast summer and Melburnian winter. The results for the day I finished this book (June 22): Belfast 11°-18° and Melbourne 6°-13°.

21 responses

  1. Pingback: 20 Books of Summer (except that it’s Winter) | booksaremyfavouriteandbest

  2. Oh dear – I can see how having Roy be such an unpleasant character takes a lot of the power away from the moral dilemma. I don’t think I’ll be in a rush to read this, but thank you for introducing me to lemon drop martinis which sound yum!

    • It really could have been such a different book with the smallest of changes to some of the characters. For the record, I didn’t like Celestial much either…

      Because they were in the South, there were actually lots and lots of delicious food references but I couldn’t go by the Lemon Drop. They are delicious.

  3. ooh controversial! I have this on order from the library so will be interested to read it with both the hype and your counter in mind. Meanwhile, I love the sound of a lemon drop martini – cheers! 🍸😋

    • I hope I haven’t coloured your reading of the book Liz. I went in with such high expectations and, within the first few chapters I realised that An American Marriage and I were not going to get on.

      • Don’t worry – one of the great things about being part of the reading community is seeing all the disparate views about a single book. I quite often find myself at the opposite end of the scale to the majority!

  4. Oh at last! another reader who didn’t like the book! I think I managed to read up to page 9, and knew the book was not for me. At least you provide a thoughtful commentary. Mine was a gut-reaction: I don’t need this! but then I live in Africa and my perspective is locally influenced.

    • Thanks for your comment!

      I did stick it out, hoping there would be some revelation at the end but truly, the blurb outlined the whole story. So disappointed as I had been really anticipating it.

  5. I didn’t like the characters in this book either. I liked Celestial even less than I liked Roy, which is really saying something because Roy was … not awesome. And I think maybe part of the *point* is that you’re not supposed to like Roy, but I think you *are* supposed to like Celestial, and I couldn’t stand her.

  6. I read it right through but only because it was the book club choice and I wanted to have something on which to base a contribution…. I’m mystified how this book has been rated so highly. I kept thinking that at some point it would improve and we would get into a meaty issue about justice but it just kept skimming the surface. A lost opportunity

  7. I didn’t mind this book but I didn’t love it and was surprised to see it get so much hype and applause. And I really don’t think it deserved the Women’s Literary Prize but that’s a whole other conversation! I thought it was strange that Celestial never once seemed to question Roy’s innocence. To me, he didn’t seem like someone who I would unquestioningly have faith in but maybe I didn’t like him much either.

  8. Of the 6 books on this years women’s prize shortlist, this was the one I least wanted to read. Sounds you’ve saved me from finding this out for myself – thanks.

    PS- just finished Circe & I loved every single bit of it. It felt like a winner to me.

  9. I wasn’t overwhelmed by this book and have appreciated your exploration of the ways it didn’t work for you. Personally, I preferred Roy’s sections to Celestia’s – not that I liked him as a character, but with (or maybe because of) all his flaws he still felt more real to me than his wife. I focused on the positives in my review of AAM so it’s refreshing to see the very real issues with it explored so cogently – thank you.

    • I’m always a bit reluctant to can a book but at the same time I don’t want to give a two star rating without qualifying it. I know some bloggers only write reviews of books they would recommend – there’s merit in that approach but I started blogging as a way of keeping track of my reading, good and bad (and people reading my reviews was a happy bonus!).

      Agree that Roy felt more real than Celestial, whose backstory never really sat with what she was doing.

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