You probably already know all you want to know about Tayari Jones’s novel An American Marriage. It’s an Oprah pick with starred reviews in major publications. It’s even part of this summer’s reading list at The Morning News which is why I read it. You rarely go wrong with The Morning News’s Tournament of Books, so I decided to give their Summer Reading Challenge a go.
So far, I’m glad I did.
Tayari Jones is an excellent story-teller.
Somehow she’s created a love story that reads like a thriller.
When we meet Roy and Celestial in the novel’s opening chapters, their story reminded me of James Baldwin’s novel If Beale Street Could Talk which I read during my freshman year in college and have considered the most romantic book in the world ever since. Ms. Jones’s novel has the same sense of passion I remember Baldwin’s having. You feel a bit embarrassed, maybe, to be intruding on such an intimate story, but the joy Roy and Celestial share in each other’s company makes you want to read more, to see if it will all work out.
It won’t, of course.
Just short of one-third of the way through the novel, a year and a half into Roy and Celestial’s marriage, Roy is suddenly and quickly imprisoned for a crime he did not commit.
An American Marriage never stops being a romance novel, but it becomes a crime story, a political polemic, and a thriller along the way.
It all comes to a point, several points, that will satisfy most readers; it nearly satisfied me. Very nearly.
I had three problems with An American Marriage.
I suspect I’m not the only reader who will find some of the events of the story a bit convenient. For example, when Roy goes to prison he goes through several cellmates in a few months until he is assigned one who happens to be the biological father her never knew. i guess you either agree to buy that particular plot twist or not; I suppose it could happen in real life. It’s just a little convenient.
I am certain that there are men who have been wrongly accused of rape, the Central Park Five for example. Young men whom Donald Trump wanted executed so strongly that he took out full-page newspaper ads calling for their deaths. Years later, all five have been exonerated. Donald Trump has never apologized for calling for their deaths.
But I’m uneasy with the use of this device here. Roy could have been wrongly imprisoned for any crime. If you’ve read the book you’re going to remind me that this particular crime comes back in the novel’s powerful closing sequence, which is true. The ending of the book would be a very different thing if Roy had been accused of narcotics possession or even murder.
My final issue An American Marriage is a similar one, what’s fair game for an object lesson? Late in the novel Roy talks about a French teacher he had in high school who took him under his wing, tried to mentor him until his parents told him he could not have anything to do with that sort of man.
Are we really still in a place where the only gay character in a novel can still be a lonely, single man who may be getting too close for comfort to the young hero. Didn’t this story line reach it’s peak with Sherwood Anderson and Lillian Helman? In 2018, I’m calling this plot line out. It’s homophobic to put just one gay character in your novel and make it this one. To kill him off by giving him AIDS just makes it worse. It adds nothing to the novel at all. Remove it, and no one would have known, which is not true for the rape accusation.
You can argue that all of this exists in the real world. It does. But this is a novel. There’s no reason why Celestial’s lawyer uncle, who works to free Roy, couldn’t have been married to a man. Except for the limits of the author’s imagination.
The Morning News does a good job with inclusiveness, so I’m expecting to find a more satisfying gay character or two in the remaining five novels.
However, in the end, there’s enough to enjoy in An American Marriage to recommend it, which I do in spite of the above misgivings I have with it. It’s a very good read.