Verdict: Infuriating but probably intentionally so.
My rating: 2.5 out of 5 stars
Genre: General Fiction
Published by Algonquin Books, 2018
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:
- The Pisces by Melissa Broder (review)
- Freshwater by Akwaeke Emezi (review)
- Normal People by Sally Rooney (review)
- Milkman by Anna Burns (review)
- Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss (review)
- An American Marriage by Tayari Jones
- Bottled Goods by Sophie van Llewyn (review)
- Swan Song by Kelleigh Greenberg-Jephcott (review)
- Praise Song for the Butterflies by Bernice L. McFadden (review)