Literary Wives: An American Marriage

It’s time for Literary Wives, a blogging club that looks at the depiction of wives in fiction!

Please make sure to check out the posts by the other wives and join in the discussion if you’ve read An American Marriage by Tayari Jones!

Emily of The Bookshelf of Emily J.
Kay @ Whatmeread
Lynn @ Smoke and Mirrors
Naomi @ Consumed By Ink

The Book

an american marriage

Celestial and Roy have only been married a short while when they make the fateful decision not to spend the night at Roy’s parents’ house and go to a hotel instead. Before that night, their backgrounds had already caused some friction in their year and a half old marriage; Roy’s family is from the country, working hard for every penny while Celestial’s city family has been more than comfortable ever since her father sold a chemical invention to a juice company.

But after the night in the hotel, Roy is arrested for something he did not do and their marriage is sorely tested when Roy spends the next five years incarcerated. When he is out early, Celestial is confronted with the decisions she’s made in the time that Roy was away, namely those having to do with the relationship she’s been in with her childhood friend, Andre.

My Thoughts

The book has gotten a lot of buzz this year as first Oprah picked it for her book club and then former President Barack Obama included it in his list of books he loved over the summer. I’d bought a copy when Oprah made her announcement so I was glad for this push to finally read it. It didn’t take me long to realize that I was reading something incredible.

When Roy is in prison they communicate via letter only. In this way Jones conveys not only the physical distance between them but how disjointed their communication is; how things are misinterpreted or misunderstood and how difficult it is to undo that when you can’t see the person frequently. The letters show the progression of this phase of their marriage, from their anger and disbelief when Roy is first convicted, united in their grief over how much they are missing out on, to the distance as Celestial misses more and more visits, moving on with her life in the outside world, while Roy is stuck in a kind of loop.

Shortly after Roy is arrested, Celestial realizes that she is pregnant and they make the decision for her to have an abortion. Neither of them can face the idea of their child in the world while Roy is locked away. But later, each sees this decision in a different way. I thought this was another brilliant way to showcase not just their marriage, but marriage in general (albeit it at a completely different level). Similarly, it felt like Jones’ decision to include every characters’ middle names was a way of showing how they were all imprisoned by Roy’s incarceration, that they were each named like prisoners, no mistaking which Roy or Celestial or Andre they were talking about.

The novel is about this marriage but it’s also about class differences, race, being Black in America, art, how to build a life. It’s a big novel in a concentrated space (306 pages).

What does the book say about being a wife?

In terms of what An American Marriage says about being a wife, I think the point it’s trying to make is that wifedom, being married, is about the every day things, building and experiencing a life together. If you can’t do that, then your marriage is only in name.

Celestial has a hard time with the idea of being someone’s wife. In the end, when Andre is pushing for her to marry him, she says that she prefers the idea of a communion, not a marriage. She is more in love with the idea of companionship, of every day life with another person, but she chafes under anything more official, as though her marriage is the reason her life looks the way that it does now. The longer Roy is in prison, the harder Celestial has to work to remember him as a real person:

The truth is that before Roy materialized in my living room, I had forgotten that he was real. For the last two years, he was only an idea to me, this husband of mine who didn’t count. He had been away from me longer than we had been together. I’d convinced myself that there were laws limiting responsibility […] that I would be a memory to him in the way he was a memory for me.

Without Roy in front her of every day, Celestial lives her life solo without the obligations that come with being a wife. She already had a hard time being the wife to someone whose background was so different to her own, forgetting that not everyone was afforded the privileges and experiences she was. Without the ability to share a life, Celestial can’t see how she will continue to be a wife to Roy, a point that’s driven home when she attends Roy’s mother’s funeral,

What we have here isn’t a marriage. A marriage is more than your heart, it’s your life. And we are not sharing ours.

An American Marriage is a heartbreaking story about a marriage mortally wounded by the systemic racism of a justice system and the people who get caught in its trap.

In December, we’re reading The Stars Are Fire by Anita Shreve!

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9 thoughts on “Literary Wives: An American Marriage

  1. She has a real knack for pulling readers into a family’s ins-and-outs. If you enjoyed this one, I bet you’ll enjoy The Silver Sparrow too. (I haven’t read Leaving Atlanta or The Untelling yet.) The documentary on Netflix, The 13th, would make a great viewing companion for this novel. And The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander. Not that you have to take it further, of course – it’s a great story – but there is plenty to explore if it’s inspired you (and I know you have an interest in social justice).

    • I’ve watched The 13th!! I tell people to watch that all the time – it was so good. I will have to look out for The New Jim Crow too. Have you read Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson?
      I am definitely on the lookout for more books by Tayari Jones and Silver Sparrow seems to be the most popular choice!

      • It *is* good, isn’t it? 🙂 It seems, in theory, like it will be relentlessly grim, and it is serious but is somehow such compelling viewing too. I haven’t read Just Mercy; I seem to remember considering at some point – maybe even when I was reading the Alexander book – but I hadn’t marked it TBR, but now I have! (I suspect it’s more narrative based than the Alexander, but all the stat’s and details in Alexander’s book make it essential reading, even though it is more work, if you know what I mean.)

  2. I’d say this is the review I wish I had written.
    I love the letters, even though it’s painful to watch things deteriorate. And I agree with Kay – your point about the every day life is right on. I think I was so caught up in all the what-ifs that I couldn’t see very clearly. I couldn’t help but think – ‘but in someone else’s opinion, they would say the wife should remain loyal and faithful *especially* because of the terrible thing that happened to Roy’. And that’s probably where Celestial’s guilt came from. I totally get why she might have tried what she did in the end… you would just feel so bad about the whole thing.

  3. This is such a great review! Your insights on the letters are spot on, and I didn’t even touch the abortion part. I like your point about how marriage and being a wife or a husband really is about the mundane and the years of experience together, through the little things. And that is exactly what was lacking here.

  4. I think the biggest change I noticed when I got married was how people treated us. We had been living together, so none of that was new. But people took us seriously. If, for the character in the novel, there is no “us” for anyone to interact with, and there is no love for a husband who is basically a stranger, I’d say this woman has no obligation to the man she married. The hiccup, if course, is that he’s innocent…. She’ll come off like a traitor. But imagine if he had accepted a job in another country and she felt the same way. No one would fault her for moving on.

  5. Oh, my! I feel as if I’ve been hiding under a rock! How did President Obama publish a listing of the books he’s been reading this summer and I missed it?!? Thanks for that bit of information. I located the list. I love your conclusion: “wifedom, being married, is about the every day things, building and experiencing a life together. If you can’t do that, then your marriage is only in name.” I knew someone else would put this much more succinctly than I could ever do! 🙂 And again, I love your summary: “An American Marriage is a heartbreaking story about a marriage mortally wounded by the systemic racism of a justice system and the people who get caught in its trap.” After reading Naomi’s review, I realized this is really the first time I couldn’t fault either partner for “cheating” on their marriage: neither Roy for his dalliance with Davina, nor Celestial for her including a sexual element to her and Dre’s lifelong friendship. I could see why each of them would do this… Though I might have adored a “happily ever after” ending with Roy and Celestial being together… As I read, I kept asking myself, “What would I do?” I know what I think I would do, but I doubt any of us can be sure. It is all so very complicated and complex! If you’ve not yet read The New Jim Crow or Just Mercy, you should. Both are extremely heartbreaking and excellent! They should be required reading, especially for “white folks”! I would like to echo Emily’s comments above. You captured it all so well!

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