An American Marriage

Rating: ⭐
Author: Tayari Jones
Genres: Fiction
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 heartbreaking 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 there 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 these 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 their 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.

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July Monthly Challenge

Where did June go?? I have a feeling that summer is just going to fly by this year! It’s easily my favourite season and I have a lot of hiking and camping activities planned this year, so I’m not sure how much reading I’ll be able to fit in, but I’ve still developed a pretty ambitious summer reading list.

I’ve been doing my best to select diverse books for my monthly challenge (and in general), and to tie in some of my challenges with my book club selections, so for my July Monthly challenge I’m aiming to:

Read 3 book by authors of colour

Like in everything else, diversity and representation are just as important in literature. I love reading not only for the storytelling, but because I genuinely learn so much from reading about different historical time periods and reading from the point of view of those who are different than me. One of the easiest ways to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes is to read a book by someone with a different perspective and lived experience.

I’ve always been frustrated that the majority of books published are by american and english authors, even books that are set in other countries and from other perspectives are often still written predominantly by white american and english authors. Even the books I’ve selected for this challenge are partly by american immigrants. The 3 books I’ve picked for this challenge are:

  1. An American Marriage by Tayari Jones
  2. The Map of Salt and Stars by Jennifer Zeynab Joukhadar
  3. Mystery Book! See poll below!

My first book, An American Marriage, has been sitting on my shelf since the beginning of the year and I’ve heard so many good things about it. An American Marriage is the story of a newlywed couple whose lives are ripped apart when the husband is sentenced to 12 years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit. Black people are systematically targeted by police and oppressed within the justice system, so I’m really interested to read about this couple and the impact this sentence has on their relationship.

My second book is also my book club selection for July. This novel is being advertised as “The Kite Runner for Syria” and sounds super fascinating because it focuses on two girls who lived 800 years apart. One girl is a modern day Syrian refugee and the second girl is a medieval adventurer and mapmaker, which I am totally intrigued by. 800 years a huge timeline gap, so I’m interested to see how the author approaches this, as well as how she explores the humanitarian crisis that is ongoing in Syria. The author is Syrian-American.

Okay, so now about my last book. I have been having a really hard time picking the last book because there are several books I want to read, but I’m not sure what one I’m most into. I like trying to have a diverse selection for my challenge, and in this case, I’ve decided it might be better to wait until after I read the first two books to see what I’m feeling might be the best final book for the challenge.

I’m not going into this totally blind though and there are several books I’ve been going back and forth between and have been torn on which to pick. The books are Exit West by Mohsin Hamid, Swing Time by Zadie Smith, Stay With Me by Ayobami Adebayo, and What We Lose by Zinzi Clemmons. They are all quite different novels, each with different aspects that appeal to me, so I’ve decided to pick one of these later in the month. Please let me know if you’ve read any of them and vote in the poll below. I’d love to hear your opinions and they may help me decide which book I ultimately pick! I would of course love to read them all and they will all stay on my TBR, but I am trying to pick one for this month!

There you have it, feel free to read along with me and share your opinions, I love getting comments and feedback and talking about all things book related!