The title of “An American Marriage” might conjure up a stilted vision of the American dream inflected by 1950s nostalgia: gingham-print aprons, towheaded children, suburban purgatory. It’s a white-washed understanding of Americana, and I’m not just talking about the picket fences. But this is exactly the notion of what makes a marriage “American” that Tayari Jones’s accomplished new novel interrogates, complicates and ultimately dismisses. In its place, Jones offers a vision of marriage in modern America that is raw and complex, and asks us to consider how the most intimate parts of our lives can be shaped by national narratives beyond our control.
Celestial Davenport is strong-willed and formidable, a folk-artist from Atlanta who makes custom dolls. Roy Hamilton is ambitious and entrepreneurial, determined to rise above his small-town Louisiana roots and make a name for himself. Both are graduates of southern historically-Black colleges and universities, navigating what it means to be a part of “What the rest of America thinks of as middle-middle-class and what Black America calls upper-middle-class” in a country still haunted by the pre-Civil Rights traumas of their parents and grandparents.
From the beginning, Jones insists on the intersection of the personal and political. Celestial and Roy’s tumble into a passionate and often volatile marriage blends easily into the canon of “universal” narratives, speaking to the optimistic ease with which young people commit to a lifetime together before they can possibly understand how long a lifetime really is. But their marriage is also hemmed tightly to the particular circumstances of race, history and socioeconomic status. Celestial, who comes from greater economic privilege, is constantly aware of this imbalance in their relationship, and Roy’s mother criticizes him for not marrying a woman of his own social class so he can “Lift somebody up with him.” They both want their children to be raised in a world where they aren’t constantly reminded of their race. As Roy says, “I’m not going to remind my kids that somebody died in order for me to do everyday things.”
Their expectations of one another’s gender roles adds another layer of complication to their marriage. Roy is conservative, constantly needs affirmation of his masculinity and expects his wife to be subordinate. Celestial is stridently feminist, insists that they remove “to obey” from their wedding vows and feels pressured into motherhood regardless of her own doubts: “Is motherhood really optional when you’re a perfectly normal woman married to a perfectly normal man?” Jones’s gift for nuance makes it possible for readers to root for this couple and, in the same breath, question whether their relationship is entirely healthy.
Then tragedy strikes: Roy is falsely accused and convicted of rape, and sentenced to 12 years in a Louisiana prison — known to be one of the worst states for Black men in the justice system. When his conviction is overturned five years later and he is released into the world, he and Celestial must contend with the destruction of their American dream by a systematically unjust justice system and with the new people they’ve become.
The narrative is instantly classic: one part “To Kill a Mockingbird,” one part “The Count of Monte Cristo.” But it is also contemporary, immediate and keenly critical. Jones’s greatest gift as a writer, besides the lyrical beauty of her prose and compelling complexity of her characters, is her ability to see the forest for the trees, to understand the silent forces that guide our lives and to fight for the right to choose a different direction. With “An American Marriage,” Jones testifies to an expanded understanding of whose stories need to be included in the canon of “universal” American narratives, and carves a place for herself as one of the great chroniclers of American life.