Fiction is at its most powerful when it lets us walk in someone else’s shoes, teaching us to empathize with the kind of people who might otherwise never cross our paths. In An American Marriage, Tayari Jones does this while exploring one of the most disturbing and seemingly intractable issues in America: the incFiction is at its most powerful when it lets us walk in someone else’s shoes, teaching us to empathize arceration of innocent people, especially people of color, by a justice system with inherent biases.
On the surface, the story is a familiar one. Roy Hamilton and Celestial Davenport are a couple in their late twenties, both establishing themselves professionally, struggling to straighten out the kinks in young marriage, unsure about whether it’s time to start a family, when suddenly Roy is accused of rape. There’s never any doubt that he’s innocent, but the victim says otherwise, and Roy is convicted and sentenced to twelve years in prison. He serves five before his lawyer works a miracle, but that’s more than enough time to severely test the couple’s relationship in every way.
Jones pointedly pays homage in the text to James Baldwin, whose classic novel If Beale Street Could Talk also tells the story of a couple torn apart when a man is falsely accused of rape. But the similarities in the two novels go only so far. Jones’ heroes are older, better educated, with good jobs and bright futures. They’ve done everything “right” and stand ready to reap the rewards. But the couple is black, and in the end, none of the rest matters.
But this isn’t a novel limited to the pain of racial prejudice. Oh, there’s plenty of that, but because this couple fits none of the stereotypes often associated with this problem—no broken family, no childhood in a crime-infested neighborhood, no lack of education, no drug addiction—it is impossible for me or other white readers to distance ourselves from their story or pretend we’d never get caught in the wrong place at the wrong time as they were. What makes the novel so powerful is that we can’t escape the notion that their plight could be ours; it can happen to anyone, though there’s no denying it happens much more often to African-Americans just because they are African-Americans.
While the dilemma facing Roy and Celestial is hardly unique, Jones takes a highly original approach to tell their story. She lets each character speak directly to the reader, telling the story of their relationship in first-person chapters from alternate points of view, later adding a third perspective to what becomes a love triangle. Each of the characters gets to plead, in a way, for the reader’s understanding and support. The result is to cast the moral dilemma in ways that suggest no one is the good guy or the bad guy; they are all victims.
While the first-person chapters are touching and honest, the heart of the novel is 50 pages of letters that Roy and Celestial write each other while he is in prison. The letters are so intimate, with so much revealed between the lines, that it’s hard not to shed tears as you realize what they’re going through. Jones wisely avoids dwelling on the horrors of prison life (a separate tragedy) but instead focuses on the way incarceration affects the couple’s relationship.
Roy, of course, has plenty of time sitting around missing Celestial, even as he’s forced to learn a new way of life if he is to survive prison. Celestial is much busier building a career, but she feels a different kind of loneliness that forces her to reconsider her relationship with Roy, which is gradually growing more distant. Though determined to support and wait for him at first, Celestial finds that harder to do as the weeks grow into months and years, making her wonder about her responsibilities to Roy and how much she wants to sacrifice to make amends to Roy for society’s cruelties.
Jones told NPR that the seed for the novel came when she overheard a couple arguing at a mall. The woman said to her companion, “Roy, you know you wouldn’t have waited on me for seven years,” and he responded, “I don’t know what you’re talking about; this wouldn’t have happened to you in the first place.” It’s fascinating to see what Jones has extrapolated from that snippet of overheard conversation.
When If Beale Street Could Talk was published in 1974, the reviews were decidedly mixed, with several mainstream critics complaining that the novel was “dated,” as though the civil rights legislation of the 1960s had laid racism to rest. If only.
Jones does not preach, and she has a bigger goal in mind than exposing the injustices of the prison system. This is not a novel to be missed.