Celestial and Roy are living the American dream. Roy is finding success as an Atlanta executive. And Celestial is making plans for turning her art, making lifelike dolls, usually modeled after Roy, into a lucrative business. There may be some conflicts around the edges, as the newlyweds get to know each other’s secrets, but that’s marriage. It’s nothing they can’t get through.
But as the couple are on their way home after visiting Roy’s family, Roy is arrested for rape, even though he was with Celestial the entire time. After his conviction, he becomes one of many black men in jail, and Celestial has to figure out how to live a life on her own while honoring the commitment she made to Roy.
This novel by Tayari Jones has gotten a lot of praise, and I’m happy to say that it is well deserved. Celestial and Roy are complex characters, caught up in an impossible situation. And there are layers to the complexity involving class, family background, and personality. Added to the mix is Celestial’s best friend Andre, who introduced the couple and is now continuing to act as best friend, filling in for Roy at important family events. The novel takes each of their perspectives in turn, and each character acts in ways that are sometimes frustrating but always understandable. They are, after all, in an impossible situation.
This book won me over early on, in a lengthy sequence of letters between Celestial, Roy, and others, while Roy is in prison. I love an epistolary novel, and these are very well done. You can see exactly how Celestial and Roy are trying to keep things together while talking past each other. All the tensions that would come with any marriage are ramped up to 11. With Roy in prison, the stakes are so much higher, and any misstep can feel like an even bigger betrayal than under more ordinary circumstances. Loyalty and faithfulness feels both so much harder and so much more important under these circumstances.
As the story goes on, all of the characters are forced to question the nature and meaning of their relationships. At times, it makes for very uncomfortable reading, and my emotions were all over the place. At some point, each of the main character did something to infuriate me, even as I could see where each one was coming from with their actions.
I should also mention the strong supporting cast, especially Roy’s mother and step-father, especially especially Roy’s stepfather (also named Roy). He is fiercely devoted to Roy, and to his wife, Roy’s mother, Olive, and he presents a strong and unwavering moral center to the novel. An argument could be made that it is Roy and Olive’s marriage that is the American Marriage of the title because it is, in many respects, the model marriage, built on steadfast loyalty and trust. But Celestial and Roy’s marriage may be closer to the norm, built on love, yes, but also misunderstandings and difficult questions. The most difficult of which is, How much love is needed to get past all the rest?