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An American Marriage

An American Marriage

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Therapists are always asking about the intricacies of marriage, and so we learn a lot about our clients’ personal lives. But what actually happens within the dome of an intimate married life is ultimately private. Tayari Jones’s beautiful novel, An American Marriage, offers a layered exploration of the inner emotional lives of a married couple, a marriage that is unusual in its honesty and in its heartache. She excavate beneath the surface of the marriage at the center of the book to ask compelling questions about loyalty, love and commitment. Readers should brace themselves for a turbulent and complicated journey.

When the novel begins, Celestial and Roy are effortlessly chic newlyweds collecting all of the bells and whistles that educated, upwardly mobile adults are socialized to covet. They have challenges, sure, and even questions about fidelity. Celestial’s parents would have preferred their glamorous daughter marry the boy next door. And Roy’s parents worry that Celestial is too fancy to appreciate their devoted son who is ambitious and successful and decidedly rough around the edges. Roy entertains the questions that swirl around the newlyweds explaining:

“I know that there are those out there who would say that our marriage was in trouble. People have a lot of things to say when they don’t know what goes on behind closed doors, up under the covers, and between the night and the morning. But as a witness to, and even a member of, our relationship, I’m convinced that it was just the opposite.”

When the couple is visiting Roy’s parents, Roy is accused of raping a woman – a charge that everyone who knows Roy is certain he could not commit. Despite Celestial’s family’s willingness to hire a top-notch attorney, Roy is wrongfully convicted with a twelve year sentence. Roy’s prison sentence leads the marriage on a new and complicated journey. Their experiences, fears and dreams unfold through an ongoing correspondence that explores and illuminates concepts of marriage and love by toggling between various perspectives and lenses.

The separation tests their commitment and inspires reflection. Roy’s written words early in his prison term will resonate with many readers working to improve their marriage:

“You are the greatest gift of my life. I miss everything about you, even your sleeping bonnet that I used to complain about. I miss your cooking. I miss your perfect shape. I miss your natural hair. More than anything, I miss your singing. The one thing I don’t miss is how we fought so much. I can’t believe we wasted so much time fussing over nothing. I think about every time I hurt you. I think about the times when I could have made you feel secure, but I let you worry simply because I liked being worried about. When I think about that I feel like a damn fool. A damn lonesome fool. Please forgive me and please keep loving me…At night, if I concentrate, I can touch your body with my mind. I wonder if you can feel it in your sleep. It’s a shame that it took me being locked up, stripped of everything I ever cared about, for me to realize that it is possible to touch someone without touching them. I can make myself feel closer to you than I felt when we were actually lying in bed next to each other.”

Both Celestial and Roy internalize various traits from each of their parents that grow more pronounced with time. One might argue that they have three different relationships, the one before Roy’s conviction, the one that unfolds in prison, and then a deeper understanding upon Roy’s release. Celestial and Roy’s written conversation animates the plot, but as the novel progresses, it turns out that Roy’s parents’ marriage is the one that stirs the soul and frames the novel. The purity of their love for each other and their love for Roy functions as the moral compass of this moving and memorable essay about American marriage, contemporary relationships, decision-making and love.

Elisabeth LaMotte

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