Celestial and Roy have been married a little over a year when he is falsely accused of rape and sentenced to 12 years in prison. They’re both smart, educated, ambitious, highly focused, and African-American. He’s a marketing pro, she’s an artist. He’s her muse, she’s his inspiration.
In An American Marriage, Tayari Jones follows the couple through Roy’s incarceration, building up layers of background stories to question just what marriage is and how being American, especially African-American, defines it.
We learn about both sets of parents and their jagged paths toward one another, and we begin to understand how and why Celestial and Roy chose one another. Andre, who has loved Celestial since they were babies, is always a bit on the sidelines, adoring her even while introducing her to Roy and celebrating their marriage.
Eventually we meet Roy’s “Biological”—the ne’er-do-well drifter to whom he is biologically related, even though the man he calls Big Roy has always been his real father. Jones deftly shows us that there is more than one way to be a father.
Why do people choose who they marry? What draws people together and why do some marriages last and some not? Do we choose the partners we want or those we need? Does that matter?
This is a story of affluent Americans who face challenges typical of many couples, but who also have the issue of race as a threat in the shadows. Roy is clearly innocent, yet it takes his lawyer five years to work past the bigoted local justice system to get him cleared. Then he returns to find what home now looks like, to deal with a brittle spirit that has endured evils he never knew existed, and a life without the mother he adored.
Celestial has moved on and, in her defense, she asks Roy, “Would you have waited for me for five years?”
“This wouldn’t have happened to you,” Roy replies. She is, after all, not a black man. But what Roy doesn’t understand is the way in which being a woman has forced Celestial into a style of thinking and acting that confines her at the same time it defines her creative spirit. She is also broken.
Ultimately, they both find a level of comfort and, perhaps, end up where they should have been in the first place.
Celestial and Roy are alternately charming and annoying, selfish yet giving. An American Marriage offers plenty of questions but no easy answers. It’s worth reading twice—once to get the story, once to get the characters.