Author: Tayari Jones
Pub Date: Feb. 2018 (read Jul. 2018)
This is so hard to review! I loved the first 2/3 of this book – I thought the writing was fabulous and the character development was so fantastic. Jones created this heartbreaking scenario and dynamic between the characters and I thought it was executed brilliantly. But I didn’t love the last third of the book, not because of how it ended (endings frustrate me all the time, but it doesn’t make them bad), I just didn’t love the character dynamics in the last third of the book. Although it wasn’t enough to deter me from rating this highly because I did really think that the writing in this book was fantastic.
Here’s the scenario: Celestial and Roy have been married for just over a year and are very much still learning about each other when Roy is falsely accused and prosecuted for a crime he didn’t commit. He is incarcerated for 12 years and it is just heartbreak to watch these two characters be torn apart and the injustice of having your life stolen from you just when you were settling down to really start it.
Like I said, I thought the set-up for this story was brilliant. The author spends just enough time introducing you to these two characters before breaking your heart for them. They were both in their early 30’s when Roy goes into prison and have essentially had the core of their marriage and life together stolen from them. They stay together, but Celestial eventually starts to move on with her life and moves on to another relationship, while Roy is stuck in the limbo of prison. Unable to fight for himself or his wife or to be their for his parents when his mother becomes ill.
When Roy gets a surprise early release after serving only 5 of his 12 years, Jones places her characters in an impossible situation, where no one is wrong, but everyone is hurting. The outside world has moved on without Roy, but he is not ready to let his old life, or his wife, go.
I loved this scenario because there is no right or wrong answers. Everyone feels wronged, but no one is necessarily wrong. They were placed in a mess of a situation and they all tried to move forward as best they could. I loved the emotional dilemma of this story because it really made me think and the simple storytelling evokes a lot of emotions. Roy and Celestial’s parents play a large role in the story too and I loved how Jones wove this characters into the narrative and used them as support for the familial themes throughout the novel. I really do think this was an excellent piece of storytelling and it’s why I will still be giving the book 4 stars.
But let’s talk about the problematic pieces (for me anyways). I didn’t love the last third of the story because I thought it fell too heavily on Roy and Andre. They spent forever fighting over Celestial like she wasn’t even a human being with any agency. They both felt they were entitled to her for the own reasons and neither was particularly interested in who Celestial really wanted to be with (especially Roy). Celestial’s voice in the story totally died out and she became so malleable to the two characters that I had no idea who this character even was any more. I wanted her to stand up for herself and I wanted the two men to acknowledge that the choice was ultimately hers, no matter how wronged they might feel by the decision. I mean, essentially I don’t think Celestial even knew what she wanted, which may be why the author wrote her this way, but I just got frustrated listening to the two men talk about her.
I mean, I know this is accurate to how a lot of men do think, so I can’t fault Jones too much. I just wanted Celestial to have more agency. It reminded me of TV shows and movies produced by men where the female characters only serve to advance the male protagonist’s storyline. I sometimes felt that Celestial was a secondary character to Andre and Roy and that at the end, she only really existed to serve their development.
The ending did actually redeem it a little bit though because one of the characters finally came to some realizations about the relationship and their behaviour. But Roy’s entitlement made me mad. He made some pretty questionable choices after he got out of prison that made me lose my respect for him. I really think he had no high ground to stand on at all after some of the choices he made, but he still felt entitled to Celestial and their marriage. Even with some of these realizations at the end, Celestial is still only a reactionary character.
I may have to do a bit more research on the author. I’m interested to know what she based Roy’s prison and release experience on and whether she has any personal exposure to how people in similar situations have felt and acted upon being released from prison. I don’t want to judge Roy too harshly because I know that 5 years in prison for a crime you didn’t commit must mess with you and I’m sure played a large role in how he acted upon his release.
To conclude, I’m still giving this 4 stars because I did really enjoy it and even though I didn’t like how the characters acted, they were still absolutely believable characters and accurate to how I’m sure some people would react in this situation. They didn’t have the maturity and respect I wanted them to have, but that doesn’t mean that weren’t good characters. Mostly I just wonder if the author intentionally wrote Celestial as such malleable character, or if she just didn’t even realize she’d given her character no agency and placed everything on the two male characters. If it was a male author I’d definitely call it a blind spot, but as a female author, I really don’t know if it was intentional or not.
The other reason I feel this still deserves 4 stars is because it is also a fantastic commentary on race, without being fully about race. I haven’t even mentioned that the entire cast of this book is black and that this undoubtedly plays a huge role in why Roy is wrongly convicted. Jones makes an important commentary about racial profiling and the injustices of the justice system, without making it her central theme. It’s ultimately a book about the long lasting impacts that the justice system can have on not only the individual, but their families and communities.