Some books stay with you long after you’ve finished reading them. An American Marriage was one of those books for me. I read it with a lump in my throat, feeling deeply for the characters, all of whom are African American and caught in an impossible situation.
Here’s the plot: Celestial and Roy are relative newlyweds, married just over a year. They leave their home in Atlanta for a small town in Louisiana, to visit Roy’s parents, and then the unthinkable happens: Roy is sent to jail for a crime he did not commit. Then the author does something unexpected. She doesn’t focus on the whys and hows of the crime or the court case. Instead, she describes its aftermath from the points of view of the characters involved, sometimes in first person, sometimes in the form of letters. Celestial suddenly finds herself alone with her husband incarcerated in another state. Roy is resigned to his fate, but expects that Celestial will continue to support him throughout his twelve-year sentence. And while she tries, it’s a lot harder than she realizes. She finds herself in a relationship with Andre, a longtime friend of the family, and when Roy is pardoned after five years, his homecoming is not what he imagined.
An American Marriage is a simple story – just the kind that can break your heart. It’s really about the complexity of family relationships, and of the expectations we put on those closest to us. Most importantly, it demonstrates the terrible consequences of our biased justice system for African Americans. Celestial and Roy have standard married-couple problems, but once Roy is wrongfully imprisoned, those problems become insurmountable. Would a white couple ever end up in this situation? Possibly, but not likely. And yet Jones manages to find hope for her characters in the end.
Oprah chose this as her most recent book club pick, and she sure got it right this time. A fantastic, moving, thought-provoking book.