An American Marriage fails to do justice to injustice [review]
An American Marriage by Tayari Jones
An American Marriage was on multiple “must read” lists the year it was published.
Former US President Barak Obama apparently said it was one of his favourite books of the year. Jones then achieved the Holy Grail when her novel was selected for Oprah Winfrey’s Book Club (inclusion in which is guaranteed to generate a major hike in sales).
The novel subsequently won the Women’s Prize for Fiction 2019.
What seems to have appealed most is the way An American Marriage tackles the effects of racial injustice but from perspective of how it threatens to destroy a relationship. The Women’s Prize for Fiction judges called it an “exquisite” novel, “a story of love, loss and loyalty, the resilience of the human spirit painted on a big political canvas – that shines a light on today’s America. “
The relationship in focus is that of Celestial and Roy. They are a young middle-class African-American couple who’ve been married for a year.
There have been some ups and downs as in all marriages, or as Celestial describes it, their marriage is “a fine spun tapestry, fragile but fixable.” Generally though life is looking pretty good.
Roy’s a sales rep for a textbook company and seems to have a promising career ahead of him. She’s an artist specialising in custom-made baby dolls and hoping to open her own shop.
It takes just 15 minutes one night to turn all their plans upside down.
On a trip to visit his parents in Louisiana, they spend the night at a motel. They argue, he goes outside to cool off but is back in 15 minutes. Later that night police break down the door of their room and haul Roy into custody on charge of raping a fellow guest. He’s sentenced to 12 years in prison.
Incarceration for a crime both know Roy did not commit, puts the marriage under strain. When he’s freed eventually he’s ready to pick up the marriage where they left off. But Celestial has found love in another quarter.
Jones sets a fast pace at the start of An American Marriage.
One chapter is all it takes to get Roy into jail. There’s no time wasted on recounting his arrest, questioning by police or a trial. Instead we get drawn straight into the effect this wrongful conviction has on the young people.
Jones relates this through three narrators: Celestial, Roy, and Andre, a childhood friend who later becomes something more. A large proportion of the early narrative comes in the form of letters exchanged between Celestial and Roy.
And that was where I experienced my first difficulty with this book.
Flaws in An American Marriage
The letters simply didn’t feel authentic to me because the writing style is belaboured. It would be far more natural for a twenty-something year old to write “I’ve never seen even seen one” rather than “I have never ….” or to say “then I’d know” rather than “then I would know what to do….” Roy’s letters in particular felt like correspondence to a stranger rather than to a wife.
When we discussed this at a book club meeting, a few members commented that the stilted style probably reflects the fact Roy knows that prisoners’ letters are vetted. It’s a fair point but I still found these letters irritating at times.
Equally irritating was the author’s tendency to include platitudes throughout the book. This one for example:
“A marriage is more than your heart, it’s your life.”
Or how about
“Marriage is like grafting a limb onto a tree trunk. You have the limb, freshly sliced, dripping sap, and smelling of springtime, and then you have the mother tree stripped of her protective bark, gouged and ready to receive this new addition…”
Commentary on race and injustice
On one level An American Marriage is intended as a state-of-the-nation kind of book; a commentary on race and justice in twenty-first century America. It’s clear that Roy’s ethnicity plays a significant part in the miscarriage of justice he experiences. On another level it’s an examination of what happens when a marriage is put to the severest of tests.
Initially both are hopeful about the future and try hard to keep things as they were. Celestial wants to recount word for word, their last conversation before his arrest so that “we can pick up where we left off.” But their optimism wanes, the affection dwindles and bitterness sweeps in. The question in the final chapters is whether the marriage can ever be put back together.
An American Marriage has many of the elements that would make for an excellent piece of fiction but it never delivers. The injustice issue is never explored to any depth so we’re left to focus on the marriage and the individuals within that relationship. Interesting but not rivetting.
I can understand why this book has resonated with many readers. But I don’t think it’s special enough to have won the Women’s Prize. Certainly not when the truly remarkable novel Milkman by Anna Burns is in the frame.
Tayari Jones: Key Facts
- Tayari Jones was born in Atlanta, Georgia.
- She is currently a member of the English faculty at Emory University in the city.
- She had three novels published before An American Marriage.
- Her debut novel, Leaving Atlanta, was written when she was a graduate student. It’s a coming-of-age story set against the backdrop of the Atlanta Child Murders of 1979-81.
- Her second novel The Untelling and her third Silver Sparrow are also set in Atlanta.
11 thoughts on “An American Marriage fails to do justice to injustice [review]”
I couldn’t finish it and I agree with your review. The reasons why you didn’t like it are the ones that made me abandon it.
And then of course, it goes on the same territory as If Beale Street Could Talk by James Badwin and it’s hard to walk the same path as such a great writer.
It was a very poor cousin to Beale Street!
Admittedly, I love epistolary novels, by their very nature, the way that the medium can offer an immediate and intense intimacy that standard storytelling cannot. But for me, the letters here were just an extension of character. I think Roy’s use of language is a reflection of who he is, and that is not necessarily what readers would expect to hear from a stereotypical prison inmate, but I believe that’s the point – he’s not.
Which is also why I think this novel has gotten so much recognition, because there are so many not-criminal individuals who are currently incarcerated in the United States. In North America there is increasingly a lot of discussion about the broken criminal justice system in the States and I think Tayari Jones’s novel is daring to put a human spin on that, to make this book not about statistics but about families. (Michelle Alexander’s book The New Jim Crow and Ava DuVernay’s documentary 13th are great places to start for those looking for more context.)
So the emphasis is on story over craft if you look at this book and Milkman: that’s a tough choice to make when so many readers enjoy both.
good point about the letters being atypical of prison inmates as far as the general public perceive them. my point wasn’t about that so much as the fact they were not how I would expect a husband to write to his wife.
I quite liked An American Marriage. My review: https://keepthewisdom.blogspot.com/2018/10/an-american-marriage.html
I admired how Tayari Jones took on the challenge of the subject matter and thought she could maybe have done a bit better but that she pushed herself as a novelist, a woman of color in America, and with a deep look into the trials her couple had to navigate. She gave me plenty to ponder. I also loved Milkman for many reasons. I think the Women’s Prize list is full of great novels. Would not want to have to judge that one.
I’ve heard nothing but glowing recommendations about this book – I’ll take your review on board and adjust my expectations slightly!
Despite the publicity around this it hasn’t appealed to me and your honest review hasn’t done it any favours either ☺️. I’ve too much else on at the moment to spend time with this, I think, unless it turns up on a book group list. Given that Milkman is a work of genius I can’t see this getting anywhere.
I’ve read both your reviews and Milkman sounds much better, and anyway I really dislike novels relying on letters (Ok, Lady Susan excepted).
Hmm I had thought I might be interested in this in time, though those things you highlight might irritate me too. The letters do sound a little unrealistic. I also agree that Milkman might be hard to beat though I haven’t read any of the others.
Interesting, I rarely read hyped books, but if I do it is usually years later when the fuss has died down and it would be because the book content interests me rather than reading a best seller.
I’m not a fan of using letters in books, so I probably will give this one a miss.
But I did enjoy your review, thanks.
This has been on my radar. I didn’t know it had letters–a style I often love. I can tell you, as a law librarian and as a family member (sadly) I have read a lot of prisoner’s mail! They generally write in “street” or “prison” rather than complete sentences, neatly punctuated and carefully constructed amid the rules of spelling and grammar.
I think you just saved me some time! Oprah picks generally either give me nightmares, flash-backs or “the sweats” so….