Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Book Review: "An American Marriage" by Tayari Jones

For the latest resurrection of her book club, Oprah chose Tayari Jones' latest novel, An American Marriage. Raw, powerful, full of searing emotion, this is a book which speaks not only to the relationship between man and woman, husband and wife, but it touches on the bond between parents and their children, even in adulthood, and the mercurial nature of life.

"Love makes a place in your life, it makes a place for itself in your bed. Invisibly, it makes a place in your body, rerouting all your blood vessels, throbbing right alongside your heart. When it's gone, nothing is whole again."

Celestial and Roy first meet in college, he being the somewhat-smooth acquaintance of her childhood friend, Andre. Although Roy is attracted to Celestial almost instantaneously, she's less impressed with him. But when they meet again a few years later in New York, the two fall in love. Roy is drawn to her creativity and her fierce sense of independence, while she is impressed that he knows just what he wants from life, including her.

The two settle in Atlanta. Roy starts becoming a successful sales executive, while Celestial's art career is on the verge of taking off. Their marriage isn't without its bumps, as the couple starts talking about whether or not to have a baby. But one night, everything changes. Roy is accused of committing a crime Celestial knows he is innocent of, and he is sentenced to a 12-year prison sentence.

"Looking back on it, it's like watching a horror flick and wondering why the characters are so determined to ignore the danger signs. When a spectral voice says, get out, you should do it. But in real life, you don't know that you're in a scary movie. You think your wife is being overly emotional. You quietly hope that it's because she's pregnant, because a baby is what you need to lock this thing in and throw away the key."

Celestial doesn't know how to deal with a husband in prison, and she's not sure she knows how to be alone. Although she loves Roy, she starts spending more and more time with Andre, who has loved her from afar (and closer than that) for as long as he can remember. Roy struggles with the idea of spending 12 years in prison for a crime he didn't commit, and finds it difficult to be so isolated as the outside world keeps marching on. He vacillates between wanting Celestial to wait the 12 years for him and wanting her to go on with her life.

Five years into his sentence, Roy is unexpectedly released. He finds that life is very different in so many ways, even just five years later. He is unsure what to expect from his marriage—although he and Celestial had difficult times while he was in prison, she never filed for divorce, so he wonders if he has a chance to resume their life together. She is caught between the love she knew, the one she felt tethered to, and the love that gives her security she has always craved. But which one is right for her?

Narrated in alternating chapters by Roy, Celestial, and Andre, An American Marriage is a searing portrait of the ragged ways we fall in and out of love. Jones is such a talented writer, and you actually feel the same dilemmas faced by her characters. She has such an ear for dialogue, for capturing emotion, and for showing how our relationships can both make us feel safe and make us come undone.

As complex as these characters are, none of them are completely sympathetic, and Jones doesn't force you to choose a side in this struggle. There was an instance when I thought the plot would veer into utter melodrama and tread a path I've seen too many times, but Jones showed some restraint, thankfully. I wasn't sure if I liked any of the characters fully, but I was still utterly engrossed in their lives.

"You can never really unlove somebody. Maybe it changes shape, but it's there."

This book really was excellent. It makes you think while it tugs at your emotions, and that felt very fulfilling. And once again, this book proves Oprah knows how to pick 'em.

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