AN AMERICAN MARRIAGE, by Tayari Jones. Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 308 pp., $26.95.
For her fourth novel, the bracing and evocative “An American Marriage” — just selected for Oprah’s Book Club — Tayari Jones found her topic in a prosperous, contemporary couple brought low when the man is wrongfully imprisoned. She found her literary spark in a shopping mall.
“Sitting in the food court, I overheard a young couple arguing in hushed tones,” Jones recalls in the book’s publicity materials, describing the pair as in love and in pain. “She said, ‘Roy, you know you wouldn’t have waited on me for seven years.’ He looked puzzled and then replied, ‘This wouldn’t have happened to you in the first place.’ ”
The first and last words of “An American Marriage” belong to Roy O. Hamilton, the striving, up-from-humble-roots Morehouse man who took his bride to Bali for their honeymoon. Eighteen months later, a judge gives him 12 years in a Louisiana prison for a rape he didn’t commit. His beloved, Celestial Davenport, is a Spelman graduate — as is Jones — from an upper-class Atlanta family. She is Roy’s alibi — but the pair had been quarreling on the night in question and the jury doesn’t believe her.
No one in either of their families doubts Roy’s innocence.
“Are you ashamed of me?,” Roy writes from his cell, panicking a bit as Celestial’s fine-arts career seems poised to ascend without him. “You are, aren’t you? You can’t go to the National Portrait Museum and tell them your husband is in prison. You could actually, but you won’t. . . . Before, we were living that Huxtable life.”
As she did with “Silver Sparrow,” an incandescent novel of teenage half-sisters, Jones expertly builds her story out of long stretches of contrasting voices, beginning here with husband and wife, often pinching them into letter format. Roy signs his “love”; Celestial signs hers “yours,” until the “dear John” installment arrives on page 81: “I can no longer be your wife.” She offers friendship, and Roy howls. That one she signs “Love (and I mean it).”
Jones, who gains in skill with each book, has made Atlanta her fictional turf, and conjuring a skein of complex relationships her trademark. She writes in folksy, assured sentences; the reading is almost effortless. When Roy’s conviction is abruptly overturned, she compounds the surprise with a new narrator. He is Andre Tucker, best man at the wedding, wedged into the Roy-less void that had stretched to five years. The pair is now a triangle.
“Celestial isn’t something that you steal like a wallet or even a bright idea,” Andre insists. “She is a living, breathing, beautiful human being.” Celestial’s mother takes a different angle, describing her only child as “brilliant but impulsive and a tiny bit selfish.” Then Gloria Davenport adds, “But more women should be selfish. Or else the world will trample you.”
In this way, “An American Marriage” swings the reader’s sympathies widely, centrifugally, as if on a merry-go-round. The men are believable. The women are recognizable, familiar as a favorite sweater. The details are pleasurable, down to the Huey Newton chairs on Roy’s parents’ front porch.
The novel kneads the push and pull of love and loyalty, weighing the merits of marriage as institution, as lived out by different generations and negotiated by different classes. Once again, this book is dense with Daddy issues, another Jones signature.
Occasionally, the writing ripens into melodrama. Looking back on the cusp of the arrest, Celestial ponders, “Did we love so forcefully that night because we knew or because we didn’t? Was there an alarm from the future, a furious bell without its clapper?”
Still, as the voices pluck our sympathies and the narrative builds, the reader rushes to discover if Roy and Celestial’s marriage can last. Jones has taken a propulsive romance and raised its stakes. “An American Marriage” hums with Black Lives Matter topicality but is devoid of sermons.
“My novel is not about criminal justice ‘per se,’ ” Jones writes in the publicity materials. “It is issue adjacent, rather than a protest novel.”
Fair enough, but consider that title. Jones doesn’t call her work “A Canadian Marriage.” Or a Bulgarian one. The Americanness seems pointed.
Even more, she begins this provocative, heartrending story with an epigraph that belies any distancing from larger societal concerns. The words Jones picked to draw in her readers come from the poet Claudia Rankine:
“What happens to you doesn’t belong to you, only half concerns you. It’s not yours. Not yours only.”