Off the page: ‘An American Marriage’

It’s an everyday story about everyday people and the lives that they share, the bonds that they forge and the bonds that they break. It’s what happens to good intentions and promises when crisis and travesty occur. An American Marriage by Tayari Jones is an honest look at a marriage in the midst of unthinkable circumstances, when love and loyalty, guilt and deception are thrown into the mix. It is heartbreaking but authentic. It is real.

Tayari Jones. Photo by Nina Subin.

“But what is real?” asks Celestial Hamilton, one of the book’s protagonists. “Did things ‘get real’ when we married, or was it the day that the prosecutor in a little nowhere town declared Roy to be a flight risk?”

Celestial and Roy Hamilton, a black couple living in Atlanta, are torn apart when Roy is wrongfully convicted of a crime in Louisiana and sent to prison. This small-town situation with big-city consequences is beyond anything that either of them had been exposed to before. Surely, they believed, justice would reign.

“I had faith in those days,” says Celestial. “I believed in things.”

But as time moves forward and Roy’s legal pleas go ignored, Celestial finds it harder and harder to visit her husband. Mainly because of the shame that she feels, and the judgment she perceives, as she enters the prison. Plus, she has a male friend on the side, Roy’s best man at their wedding, who is supporting her with love.

“Celestial isn’t something you can steal like a wallet or even a bright idea,” says Andre. “She’s a living, breathing, beautiful human being. Obviously, there are more sides to this story than just mine and hers, but what can’t be questioned is this: I love her and she loves me.”

When Roy emerges from prison, the trio is forced to address the relationships that have unfolded or deteriorated while an innocent man served time behind bars. The story is told in the voices of Roy, Celestial and Andre and gives a convincing perspective from each angle. It sheds light on a marriage: the moments that make it, break it or force it finally into fragments of the past.