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!
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.
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!