Oof. July hasn’t been a great month for reading, although that is partially because I’ve been spending some time working on non-fiction (A House Full of Females by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich and The Greatest Story Ever Told–So Far: Why Are We Here by Lawrence Krauss) and coming nowhere near finishing it.

But, I did read An American Marriage, by Tayari Jones, earlier this week, and in about 10 minutes (okay, like 2 days). I just couldn’t put it down.  I felt sort of consumed by it, or like haunted by it in a similar way to Fever Dreams. The two books are nothing a like, but it was that same, I just can’t put this down because I have this ominous feeling about what is going on. Which is kind of weird because the objectively horrible thing (and this is on the dust jacket, so I’m not calling it a spoiler) that happens is that the husband, Roy, goes to prison for a crime you the reader are sure he didn’t commit.


An American Marriage is a story about one marriage, but it’s also the story of lots of marriages and the relationships between people made by blood and by choice. Roy and Celestial are married for only a little over a year when Roy is arrested for a crime he didn’t commit and sentenced to 12 years in prison. The novel spends little time on the months he spends leading up to the trial, the trial itself, or the time he spends in prison — about 2/3rds of the book takes place immediately after he’s released. Roy is from a poorer African American family, Celestial was raised in a middle-class African American family, but her parents became wealthy due to an invention patented by her father.  She’s trying to make it as an artisan/artist — she makes very elaborate dolls which she sells, although she also makes some that are dolls but also more serious art pieces. There is also a love triangle, as Celestial falls for someone (Andre) else while Roy is in prison. The story is alternately told from Roy, Celestial, and Andre’s perspectives.

There is a lot of philosophizing about marriage in the book, as Celestial’s father tells Roy while he’s in prison (and Celestial is starting to visit less), “Marriage is between two people. There is no studio audience.” This book is really about how true and how not true that is. What is between two people, it is just between them. But, each person is part of a family, they have friends, everyone is part of this complicated web, and all these other people have opinions. And everyone in the book has strong opinions about marriage:

Celestial says she doesn’t believe in marriage anymore. “Till death do us part” is unreasonable, a recipe for failure. I asked her, “So what do you believe in?” She said, “I believe in communion.” As for me, I’m modern and traditional at the same time. I, too, believe in intimacy- who doesn’t? But I also believe in commitment. Marriage is, as she says, “a peculiar institution.” My parents’ divorce made it clear what kind of raw deals are brokered at the alter. But right now, in America, marriage is the closest thing to what I want.

This quote is from Andre, and it is striking to me because there’s so much packed in here. Celestial is still married at this point to a man who has been wrongfully imprisoned, largely due to his race. She’s implicitly (explicitly??) comparing marriage to slavery (a peculiar institution), and yet Andre is saying that, as a black man in America, limited although not himself wrongfully imprisoned, marriage is the choice he wants to make for himself. Marriage certainly has been a form of servitude for many, and there are a lot of badly treated women in this book, Roy’s mom and Andre’s mom have both been left with children too feed.

Celestial doesn’t really fit into that, although I don’t disagree that maybe “till death do us part” is trickier when you’re living as a well-to-do black woman, and yet your husband can be arrested and sentenced to twelve years in prison on the basis of nothing. As she puts it, “This isn’t what I signed up for.” And I think there are a lot of people in the world in marriages feeling this way, in all sorts of situations. I haven’t personally gotten there, my husband may have felt like my Mom’s illness wasn’t what he signed up for, but I’ve had a few people say something along these lines to me. This book, and its characters pull you back and forth across the line — on one hand, there isn’t a sign up sheet, promises were made, and love isn’t always easy, but on the other, you only have one life to live, do you have to spend it with someone just because of a sense of obligation?

There’s also plenty in this book about motherhood and mothers, which I always mark, because it always hits me, because I miss my Mom. Roy’s mother dies while he’s in prison, and he’s dealing with a lot of other things, but he’s missing her:

The draft in the room collided with the neatly folded clothes, releasing the scent I’ll always association with Olive. If you were to aske me what it smelled like, I couldn’t answer any more than you would know what to say if someone asked you to describe the fragrance of coffee. it was the scent of my mother and it couldn’t be broken down into parts.

I also have to discuss one more line, Andre is musing about how he’s not sorry about his relationship with Celestial, but he is sorry for so many things, he’s sorry for Roy, who was so robbed of his future by being in the wrong place at the wrong time, but he also says “I was sorry for everyone in the world because we all had to die and nobody knew what happened after that.” I have spent a lot of time in the last year thinking about death and dying and looking into the abyss and freaking out, but wow. I have never had this thought, and now I am unable to stop turning it over in my mind. It doesn’t exactly give everyone a free pass, but it really makes me think about how much I have in common with every human being who is now, or who ever was.

I marked a lot of pages in this book… there is SO much that I could say, there’s A LOT in here about fatherhood and much more about race that I haven’t touched on, but the main thing is this: you should read this book. It’s wonderful and terrifying and, it even has an epilogue, which (per a discussion I had with someone last week) is the neatly tied bow that some people are looking for in their novels.

Currently reading: Almost done with Heartberries, and still working on A House Full of Females and The Greatest Story Ever Told–So Far.