An American Marriage by Tayari Jones
I read it as an: audiobook
Narrator: Sean Crisden and Eisa Davis
Source: my own collection
Roy Hamilton and Celestial Davenport are a young, married, black couple living in Atlanta. They’re up and coming, just starting out – he’s a hotshot executive, having graduated from a prestigious college with a full scholarship, and she’s making a name for herself as an artist. Their plans for the future come to a grinding halt when they visit Roy’s parents in Louisiana one weekend, and Roy is arrested, and later convicted, for a rape he did not commit. He is sentenced to 12 years in prison, and is released after 5 when his conviction is overturned. He returns to Atlanta, ready to start his marriage back up again, but 5 years apart is a long time, and Roy isn’t the only one changed by his time in prison.
Sometimes, you read a book that highlights a social issue and it enrages you and makes you want to set the world on fire, like The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander. Other books, like An American Marriage, bring those social issues home, give them a human face, and put them into the context that shows the impact they have on whole families, not just one person. This book is a deep character study, using first person perspectives from Roy, Celestial, and their mutual friend Andre. During the years of Roy’s incarceration, it shifts to an epistolary narrative, which works really well and shows the ways in which his and Celestial’s marriage is beginning to crumble. It is a discussion on what marriage is, what is worth fighting for, how much of yourself are you willing to give up, and to what extent duty and obligation stretch. How does one person save another, and is it her job to do so? There were so many parts of this book that made me just…sad. Nothing made me ugly cry, though I can see how it might have if I had been in a different mood. But the whole thing just filled me with a deep sadness. Our system is so terribly broken. Although Roy is fictional, his story is not. There are so many young men whose lives are destroyed because they were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time, and they were victims of a system that is deeply flawed and stacked against them. Roy was the one to spend time in prison, but it was not just him to suffer. His family suffered and changed in irrevocable ways and no one came through the experience unscathed. To think only the person in prison is the one affected is very wrong. It shouldn’t need to be said at all, but in case it does, this book helps to bring that point home and show the human side of the broader social issues.
I think this story could have gone very differently. I am glad it ended as well as it did, though it was still heartbreaking. It could easily have gone a whole lot worse and I’m glad it didn’t. I was really worried it would go sideways and be bad, especially at the start of the epilogue. The resolution was imperfect and the best they could do and was, ultimately, very human and real.