I’d heard nothing about An American Marriage before it arrived, its cover adorned with an Oprah’s Book Club selection tag which always reminds me of Jonathan Franzen’s pompous refusal to have anything to do with Winfrey’s endorsement of The Corrections, considering himself to be part of the ‘high art literary tradition‘. Well, la di da. Anyway, it certainly didn’t put me off nor Michael Chabon who also rated it highly as did Amy Bloom, one of my favourite writers. Tayari Jones’ novel lays bare a marriage in the first flush of love when the husband is wrongfully imprisoned.
Roy and Celestial are visiting his parents in small town Louisiana. They met briefly when she visited her best friend Andre in college but their relationship began properly four years later. Roy is a publishing rep, easy, charming and very successful at what he does while Celestial is a doll maker whose work is just beginning to catch the art world’s eye. They’re an attractive young couple, bright successful and in love, part of Atlanta’s growing black middle class. Celestial is a little nervous about the visit, never feeling she quite measures up to her mother-in-law’s exacting eye. Roy has booked them into a local hotel much to her relief. When he meets a woman at the ice machine, her arm in a cast, they briefly chat and he helps her to her room, opening her door for her before returning to Celestial. In the early hours of the morning, the police burst into their room, hauling Roy off to the station where he is accused of rape and later sentenced to twelve years in prison. Jones’ novel explores the fallout of this awful calamity.
Jones unfolds her story from both Roy and Celestial’s points of view with occasional interpolations from Andre. Married for just eighteen months, they’re still very much caught up in each other. Roy is a confident, slightly brash young man from a respectable blue-collar background while Celestial has enjoyed the privileges of wealth, a divide captured well by Jones in their very different voices, particularly Roy’s: If my childhood were a sandwich, there would be no meat hanging off the bread. Racism, class and marriage come under the microscope as do absent fathers and attitudes towards women which may sound a little ambitious but it’s all tightly controlled and smoothly executed in this powerful novel which avoids the saccharine. Lots to talk about here for book groups – I’m not surprised Oprah plumped for it and I’m sure Jones was more than happy that she did.