Literary Wives: An American Marriage

The marriage of Celestial and Roy is mediated by bars: prison bars. They are a young black couple who is torn apart when Roy is falsely accused of rape (Celestial was with him when it was supposed to have happened) and he is sentenced to 12 years in prison. After he is incarcerated (a very terrible American tradition for black men; see The New Jim Crow), their relationship continues and is told through the letters they send.

This book, An American Marriage (2018) by Tayari Jones, is the October read for the Literary Wives series, hosted by the following bloggers. Check out their posts!

Naomi of Consumed by Ink

Kay of What Me Read

Lynn of Smoke & Mirrors

Eva of The Paperback Princess

Also, you can join us in December when we read The Stars Are Fire by Anita Shreve.

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While the characters of Roy and Celestial are separated by bars, and their circumstances seem to be extreme, I would argue that many marriages are separated, even when the couples live together and the justice system isn’t in the way. The lack of emotional connection between married couples can be its own set of bars, and because I’ve been reading The Will to Change: Men, Masculinity, and Love by bell hooks at the same time as reading An American Marriage, I can’t help but make connections. By hooks’s account, men are socialized in emotionally violent ways and often escape into work, violence, repressed rage, and disconnection to survive without really living. Her take on patriarchal masculinity suggests that most male-female relationships are divided by power struggles and a lack of intimate connection through love.

The marriage in this novel is separated by bars, and those circumstances create more and more separation. From the letters of Roy and Celestial to each other, we start to realize the toll it is taking. Without touch, without shared experiences, and without the mundanity of everyday together, they may not make it. Further, Celestial becomes close to Andre, her childhood friend and Roy’s college friend. Andre is the man who is there, the one Celestial can count on, and it is therefore hard for her to keep her commitment to Roy.

I don’t want to give away all of the details of the plot, so I won’t. But there’s much to be learned about marriage and relationships in this novel. When Roy’s mother dies, his father fills in her grave with his own hands. He won’t let the gravediggers do it, and this act becomes a symbol throughout the rest of the novel of the shared love and respect the two had in their long marriage. It sits in contrast to Roy and Celestial’s marriage.

Celestial’s family is also part of the picture of what it means to be a wife. When Andre gets in the way, her father spouts traditional values and suggests that she isn’t being the wife she should be.

However, the situation is nearly impossible. I’m not sure that any of us could predict what we would do if our spouse ended up in jail, wrongly convicted. Would we stick with it? Would we remain faithful? Or would the different trajectories of life pull you apart, no matter how hard you tried to make it work? The situation lacks hope, and that makes it nearly impossible for Celestial to be the traditional, longsuffering, patient, faithful wife that many of us think of when we contemplate marriage.

For Celestial, her connection to Roy while he’s in prison becomes about need and obligation. The relationship isn’t mutual and it brings both of them down. She continues to visit out of what Roy realizes is duty. Is that romantic? No. Is it necessary in marriage. Absolutely. But can a relationship survive on only duty? That is the question this book attempts to answer.

I highly recommend this read. I loved it from the first few chapters. We hear the perspectives of all involved, and it makes for a complicated view of what it means to be a good spouse, a good friend, and a good daughter or son. Human emotions and situations are complex, and this novel gets at that while also covering topics of race, wrongful imprisonment, culture, and love. Ultimately, there is hope. The characters must walk through pain to get there, but the book ends hopefully.

I loved this book! I will read anything Tayari Jones writes.

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15 thoughts on “Literary Wives: An American Marriage

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  1. I agree – the author did a nice job blending all those topics into a good story! And I love what you say about there being a kind of separation between couples who are physically together.

    I found it hard to answer our question based on Celestial and Roy’s marriage – it was so short and then they were separated. It was easier to go by Roy and Olive. But the fact that they struggled through the separation is partly the point, I guess. It’s hard to keep the marriage going when you’re not together. All the questions the book raised kept distracting me from “the question”. 🙂

    My favourite part of this book were the letters. I was having trouble getting into it until then.

    1. I really liked the letters too! I was hoping the whole book would continue that way, but it didn’t, and it still worked. I agree that it was hard to answer the question, given the context. How could Celestial possibly play a “wifely” role and tell us about it when their marriage was so short. I didn’t fault her for the choices she ended up making. What a complicated marriage!

  2. I think you have made the point I was trying to make by your comment on the lack of emotional connection. That’s what I felt about this marriage. I think you liked the book more than I did, however.

    1. Ha ha! I think I tend to like certain books more than you do, and vice versa! And yes, I think many marriages lack emotional connection; this one just happened to play that out more starkly and with some racial and political context.

    1. I’m glad to hear that about Shreve! I read a few of hers back when Oprah had a book club, but I am not a huge fan, so I wasn’t excited about The Stars Are Fire. Now I am! Thanks!

  3. I love what you said about the lack of emotional connection. That might have been part of the issue that made it more difficult for some people to connect with the characters as well. There was so much going on in this book that I had to take a breath sometimes, just sit with what I was reading.

    1. Yeah, it was definitely a heavy read. I look forward to seeing what everybody else said about connecting with the characters. I haven’t read the other posts yet!

  4. I appreciate your comment on the extra-family input on their marriage; it’s true, that’s super important. This is a novel I really enjoyed for the story, for the complexity of the characters, and for taking on a difficult social/judicial/political issue so deftly that it almost becomes a backdrop.

  5. I LOVE the picture with the little family! How apt! And I can see our reactions to this one were very similar! I love it when I love the book we review! I like your emphasis on Jones’ ability to relay the complexities of relationships and life, yet in such a readable and easy-to-access way. Everything you expressed echoes my feelings! Excellent summary. The Will to Change definitely sounds like an interesting read. That will definitely be added to my TBR listing!

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