by Grant Cousineau
As the author of one of the most popular books published in the last few years, Tayari Jones has become not only one of the must-see events of UntitledTown 2020, but an author worth celebrating anywhere she goes.
Her fourth and latest novel, An American Marriage, was not only a 2018 Oprah’s Book Club Selection, but also found itself on Best of the Year lists from NPR, TIME, Bustle, The Dallas Morning News, and Amazon.com. Barack Obama added it to his 2018 summer reading list, and then there were the awards: the 2019 Women’s Prize for Fiction, the 2019 NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Literary Work in Fiction, and a number of other finalist selections and accolades.
So what’s An American Marriage all about? On the surface, wrongful incarceration: Newlyweds Celestial and Roy are on the brink of building their American Dream – a young executive and an artist whose career is about to break wide open are laying the foundation for their perfectly imperfect marriage. Then, one night at a Motel 6 in Louisiana, they get into an argument. While they take a few minutes apart to cool off, a crime at that very same motel is committed by another black man. Ultimately, this terrible coincidence flips Roy’s life upside down when the victim mistakenly accuses him of the crime, leading to a long prison sentence.
The premise is topical and timely, showing how the prison system sweeps away young black men from their lives like indifferent hurricanes. According to The Innocence Project, black men are seven times more likely to be wrongfully convicted of murder than white men and three times more likely to be convicted of sexual assault. To date, 362 convicted Americans have been proven innocent by DNA, and you can only imagine the devastating impact this has had on the lives of these men and women and their families.
But Jones isn’t telling a story about the justice system as much as she is about relationships – can Celestial and Roy hold together their marriage after they’ve been forcefully separated? How will prison change them both? And then there’s Andre, Roy’s best friend, self-appointed to supporting Celestial during this time while further complicating the situation.
“You can never really unlove somebody. Maybe it changes shape, but it’s there.”
An American Marriage is the rare book that offers no easy answers. From the moment of Roy’s sentencing, you become propelled with righteous anger, trying to make sense of the injustice, the helplessness, fruitlessly hoping their marriage proves resilient. But what enthralled me most about this book was how my expectations morphed with every page, observing the ways in which Roy becomes a different man and Celestial a different woman.
For the innocent, salvation is a merely mirage. As you read on, you begin to second-guess whether their reunion can ever bring back what once was. Is love static? Can Roy and Celestial find their happy endings — or do they even share the same hopes anymore? In a battle between the institution of marriage and the institution of justice, which one will win out?
Jones gives us no promises, only that her book is difficult to put down. Every character is rich with voice and nuance, and she paints a captivating picture of the South – Atlanta in particular – with pitch-perfect tone, dialect, and those lovable Southern similes and metaphors. Whereas another author might have used her narrative to sermonize about racial injustice or prison reform, Jones goes deeper into what truly matters to an American marriage: love, shame, anger, freedom, heartbreak, and our humanity.
Tayari Jones will be one of the headliners for UntitledTown this April (keep an eye out for UntitledTown’s complete schedule) to talk more about An American Marriage and more.