Tayari Jones’ An American Marriage is great. It follows Celestial and Roy and the dissolution of their marriage after Roy is imprisoned for a crime he didn’t commit. They’ve been married for a year at the point, and the book explores what the obligations are for each individual in marriage/committed relationships when the circumstances of the initial arrangement change. To what do we owe one another in perpetuity? When do we get to change our minds? What must we sacrifice for the institution, or for the other person, and when do we get to privilege our own happiness? What rights do we have (to be selfish) (to expect steadfast commitment)?
Celestial and Roy’s marriage is constrasted with that of their respective parents. Each set of parents offering up a different vision of the same questions of commitment. I was moved by the scene of Roy’s father (name escapes me) burying his mother and wondered at that kind of grief.
As much as it is a book about the institution of marriage, it is also about manhood. If both (marriage and manhood) are imagined in our current moment to be under threat, or flailing, or failing, this book harkens back to a vision of each that is, if not idealized, than at least coherent. Roy puts forward visions and versions of what it means to be a man, as if to test the hypothesis or to have them rejected. In so doing the reader can also examine whether there is any value to be had in a constellations of qualities we might call ‘manhood,’ or whether this institution, too, has served its function and can be dispensed with like so many fast divorces.
It’s also a book about race and the state. Much of Celestial’s concern about how to respond to Roy’s experience of incarceration is to know that he is a black man in America and that his experience of the criminal justice system is visited upon him and his family in ways that are at once extrordinary in their injustice and perfectly ordinary in their frequency. Celestial must weigh whether she has particular obligations, in addition to those of being a wife, because she is the wife of a black man falsely accused and imprisoned.
Taken together the book explores resonant questions and does so with beautiful, captivating writing. It’s well worth a read before the end of the summer.