Review: An American Marriage by Tayari Jones

33590210Verdict: Infuriating but probably intentionally so.

My rating: 2.5 out of 5 stars

Genre: General Fiction

Published by Algonquin Books, 2018

Find it on Goodreads.

Newlyweds Celestial and Roy are the embodiment of both the American Dream and the New South. He is a young executive, and she is an artist on the brink of an exciting career. But as they settle into the routine of their life together, they are ripped apart by circumstances neither could have imagined. Roy is arrested and sentenced to twelve years for a crime Celestial knows he didn’t commit. Though fiercely independent, Celestial finds herself bereft and unmoored, taking comfort in Andre, her childhood friend, and best man at their wedding. As Roy’s time in prison passes, she is unable to hold on to the love that has been her center. After five years, Roy’s conviction is suddenly overturned, and he returns to Atlanta ready to resume their life together.

I am so very torn on this one. It infuriated me beyond belief – but I think that was intentional. It is super readable and interestingly structured but it is also weirdly unbalanced in the overall experience. I can absolutely see how this book might work for a different reader but for me vast stretches were near unbearable.

This book is, at its core, not so much an exploration of the injustices of the American prison system (the main male character is innocently incarcerated leading to the slow destruction of his marriage) as it is an exploration of marriage and most importantly toxic masculinity. I do appreciate this angle more, as I am interested in relationships and their disintegration. Tayari Jones handles this aspect of her story beautifully, showing us just enough of what makes her couple tick that their inevitable implosion feels organic.

In the context of the prison aspect, I am glad she chose to make Roy this unlikeable because niceness has nothing to do with the rights he should be afforded. I appreciate the message she sends here. When it comes to the relationship angle of this book though, I was clearly from the very beginning, very much on Celestial’s side. While she definitely makes mistakes and has her own flaws, I found Roy near unbearable. He feels entitled to women’s bodies, has a vocal dislike of condoms that he uses to coerce the women he sleeps with to do so without them, has issues with consent in general, and he is overall a horrible person who treats Celestial, even before his imprisonment, more like a trophy than like a wife. I found he had very few redeeming qualities which made me very impatient when everybody in the story kept pressuring Celestial to stay with him.

What worked really well for me was the structure of the book – I did not only enjoy the letters Celestial and Roy exchange in the first half but also how Tayari Jones uses her intimate first person narration to always show new nuances to her characters. I liked how the story is told strictly chronologically while also giving insights into these people by way of well-integrated scenes from the past.

Overall, I can see why the book was this successful but it did not always work for me. I wish Roy had not been quite as awful or that Celestial had kicked him out of her life much sooner. I think Roy’s awfulness detracted from the story as well – because while I spent the majority of the book firmly believing that he was innocent his behaviour towards the end of the book did make me doubt that – and I am fairly certain that was not the point.

I am reading the Women’s Prize for Fiction longlist this year. My current ranking is as follows:

  1. The Pisces by Melissa Broder (review)
  2. Freshwater by Akwaeke Emezi (review)
  3. Normal People by Sally Rooney (review)
  4. Milkman by Anna Burns (review)
  5. Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss (review)
  6. An American Marriage by Tayari Jones
  7. Bottled Goods by Sophie van Llewyn (review)
  8. Swan Song by Kelleigh Greenberg-Jephcott (review)
  9. Praise Song for the Butterflies by Bernice L. McFadden (review)

13 thoughts on “Review: An American Marriage by Tayari Jones

  1. Excellent review! You raise such an interesting point by saying you began to doubt Roy’s innocence. We know he didn’t commit the particular crime he is punished for, and yet he proves himself morally skewed and unhealthy in his view of women and power dynamics. It begs the question, where is the line when it comes to deserving punishment and no longer being redeemable?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you!

      Oooooh, that is such an interesting thought. This book really is clever when it isn’t frustrating me. Especially with regards to the politics underneath the obvious storyline. Much to mull over for sure!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. This is SUCH a good review – you captured everything that worked about this book but I still understand why your personal reading experience left you infuriated.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you!
      I do have many thoughts and I think the book is just perfect for discussions about a wide range of topics. I definitely understand why it was so successful. But man, Roy’s the worst.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. This is such a balanced review.
    I liked this book a lot when I read it about a year ago, but as I’ve been thinking about rereading some of the longlist titles that I picked up in 2018 (primarily if they end up on the shortlist) I find that I dread the thought of potentially revisiting this one. You’ve done a great job of capturing the highlights, as there are undeniably points of value, but my appreciation has faded over time and I agree with so many of your points here. Especially about Roy- he’s been steadily souring in my memory since I read this book.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you!
      Roy’s the worst! But, I do think the book is exceptionally cleverly structured. I don’t think I would ever want to revisit the book but I am glad to have read it. It will be interesting to see how your experience changes upon reading it a second time!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Excellent review, one of my favorites that you’ve written so far! It’s so well balanced and rational, it’s making me even more interested in this book. I definitely want to see the angle of toxic masculinity and the crumbling of a marriage myself, thank you for highlighting those two issues!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you so much!

      It is definitely worth reading. I had super interesting discussions based on the book, so that does count for something. It just also infuriated me beyond believe. But I am leaning towards that being intentional on the author’s part. I would be interested to hear your thoughts if you decide to read it!

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Roy bugged me, but not as much as Celestial did. I found it infuriating how she refused to COMMIT to any action. She goes on and on about how she is her own woman capable of making her own decisions and running her own life, but then throughout the novel never does anything for herself. I found that frustrating.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Interesting! I think I would have felt the same if I hadn’t been already annoyed with Roy by the time we met Celestial. And I found her inability to choose fairly understandable, given that her whole environment kept treating her like she is a pretty trophy but ultimately incapable. But she was definitely super flawed as well!

      Liked by 1 person

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