An American Marriage
After much anticipation, my virtual book club decided to read An American Marriage by Tayari Jones. The book has been highly praised and has received outstanding reviews from everyone, including a ringing endorsement from Oprah Winfrey herself.
This review will probably spill all of the tea, so if you haven’t read the book, I’d advise you to stop here. In short, Jones tells the story of a young African American newlywed couple whose life is turned upside down by a wrongful conviction. The prison sentence tests the relationships of everyone involved, and true feelings are revealed as the author tackles serious issues such as the biased criminal justice system, the dynamics of Black families, and the constitution of marriage itself.
This was a great selection for our book club. It invoked a lot of conversation around infidelity, marriage, father/son relationships, racism, and courage.
The following questions are pulled from An American Marriage Reading Guide from Oprah.com.
1) The title of this novel is An American Marriage. Do you feel this title accurately represents the novel? Why or why not? And if you do find the title appropriate, what about the story makes it particularly “American”?
The title An American Marriage does accurately represent the novel. There are actually four marriages featured in the novel - Roy and Celestial, Roy’s parents, Celestial’s parents, and Andre’s parents. All though Roy and Celestial’s marriage is at the center of the story, each marriage endures their shares of ups and downs. They are all examples of typical marriages in America - relationships tested by loved ones going to jail, loss of a loved one, infidelity, and abandonment.
2) When Celestial asks Roy if he would have waited for her for more than five years, he doesn’t answer her question but reminds her that, as a woman, she would not have been imprisoned in the first place. Do you feel that his response is valid, and do you think it justifies his infidelity? Do you believe that he would have remained faithful if Celestial had been the one incarcerated? Does this really matter, and if so, why?
Roy’s response to Celestial is valid; but he still didn’t answer the question. Nothing justifies infidelity. It was clear that Celestial no longer wanted to remain married to him, but I feel like Celestial and Roy needed to have a clarifying conversation about the status of their relationship once he was released from prison. I don’t feel like Roy would have remained faithful if Celestial was incarcerated because there is evidence in the story that he was unfaithful before he was sentenced.
3) In her “Dear John” letter to Roy, Celestial says, “I will continue to support you, but not as your wife.” What do you think she means by this statement? Do you feel that Roy is wrong to reject her offer?
Celestial is being her typical spoiled self with that statement. She is telling Roy that she no longer wanted to be married to him; but will put money on his books because it’s the “right thing to do.” Celestial punked out and wrote this in a letter, instead of telling Roy face to face; which he deserves. At this point in the novel, I believe Celestial has already moved on to her best friend Andre and has disregarded her relationship with her husband. I do believe that Roy was not wrong to reject her offer. I feel as though he deserved an in-person explanation of her decision. Their marriage involved two people, and Celestial made the decision without even discussing it with the other person involved. Roy might have been trying to hold on to their failing marriage because it was the only thing keeping him alive while incarcerated, but he deserved more than a letter.
4) You may not have noticed that Tayari Jones does not specify the race of the woman who accuses Roy of rape. How did you picture this woman? What difference does the race of this woman make in the way you understand the novel’s storyline?
I automatically assumed this woman was white. I made this assumption because of the swift trial and sentencing for this Black man in the deep south. Roy initially helped her out, because of his proper upbringing and his need to waste some time before returning back to Celestial after their disagreement. I feel like he still should have checked in with Celestial while he spent so much time with the older woman, just to cover his tracks in case the worst occurred. A part of me also believes that if the woman was Black, she wouldn’t have accused Roy of rape. She would have remembered his name, or something about him that reminded her of her own son for her to make a clear distinction between Roy and her rapist. The unidentified race of the woman also speaks to current climate of racial tensions all over America; especially in the southern states. Assuming the accuser is white, the speedy trial and conviction is reminiscent of a modern day Emmett Till.
5) Andre insists that he doesn’t owe Roy an apology for the way his relationship with Celestial changed. Do you agree? Why or why not?
I totally disagree with Andre and the way he broached this whole situation. He knew he had feelings for Celestial this whole time. Even though they made an attempt at a potential relationship when they were young, Andre’s feelings for Celestial never left. Why he willingly allowed Roy and Celestial’s relationship to progress to marriage totally baffles me. What happened to the scene in all the movies where the friend professes his love for his friend right before she walks down the aisle? Closed mouths don’t get fed and Andre should have spoken up. If he did, this whole situation might have been avoided. In my opinion, Andre deserved to get his ass whooped once Roy was released early.
6) There are two father figures in Roy’s life: Big Roy is the one who shepherded him into adulthood and helped him grow into a responsible, capable person, but Walter is the one who taught Roy how to survive. Do you feel these men deserve equal credit? If not, which was the more important figure in Roy’s life and why?
It’s hard to give them equal credit. Big Roy stepped in when Walter abandoned little Roy and Olive, and Walter stepped in when Big Roy was unable help because little Roy was behind bars. The relationships with both men was essential and was an important factor in Roy’s journey from adolescence to adulthood. I wouldn’t say that one was more important than the other; because the guidance and direction was needed from both men; just at different times.
7) Big Roy explains that he and Olive never had children of their own because Olive feared that he would not love Roy as much if he had his “own” children. Do you feel she had the authority to make that decision? And do you feel she was right in making that decision?
This is another instance where the complexities of American marriages are examined. In this case, the spouse is making a crucial decision on her own that affects both parties involved. Was the decision to have more children ever thoroughly discussed between Olive and Big Roy? Or did Olive come to this conclusion on her own? Little Roy did mention his meager upbringing, so one could argue that his parents couldn’t afford another child. While Olive’s feelings are understandable, it does Big Roy a disservice to assume that little Roy wouldn’t receive as much love if a biological child was introduced. I think that Big Roy showed his loyalty when he gave little Roy is name even though he was not his biological son.
8) When Roy is released from prison, he first goes to his childhood home and almost immediately makes a connection with Davina. Do you feel that given the tenuous relationship he has with Celestial—who is still legally his wife—he is cheating? Why or why not? And when Roy announces to Davina his intention to return to his wife, do you feel that her anger is justified?
As long as Roy and Celestial are married on paper, he is technically cheating on his wife. If Roy and Celestial were on better terms, he probably wouldn’t have willingly pursued Davina. As a man that was incarcerated for five years, it’s understandable that the first thing he wanted to do was be with a woman. Unfortunately the woman he called his wife was no longer interested in him. Davina had every right to be angry with Roy -- even though she knew that there was a small possibility Roy would return to Celestial; Roy made it seem like that was not the case. Especially after staying in her home for over 48 hours.
9) Roy is hurt when Celestial, in discussing her career as an artist, doesn’t mention him or the role he played in giving her the encouragement and freedom to follow her dreams, but Walter argues that she is justified in her silence. Do you agree? Do you think her silence is due to shame, or is she just being practical in how she presents herself to advance her career?
This moment was conflicting for me as a wife. If my husband was wrongfully convicted, I would use every moment fighting for his justice. On the other hand, this is the one time when she has an audience that is interested in her craft, and she doesn’t have to wear her “Justice for Roy” hat. One can argue that she is trying to establish her own platform before raising awareness about Roy, fearing that she might lose anyone that could potentially help her fight for his justice. On the other hand, she could have at least mentioned his name, and provided a vague explanation about his absence. I’m assuming that this story occurred before the height of social media, so digging up any dirt on Celestial and Roy could have fallen on deaf ears.
10) It is obvious that Andre is different from Roy in many ways. Do you feel that ultimately he is a better match for Celestial? If so, why? Also, why do you think Celestial and Andre decide against formally marrying? Do you think that as a couple they will be good and nurturing parents? Do you feel that as a couple, they will be better at parenting than Celestial and Roy would have been? If so, why?
Andre only appears to be a better match for Celestial, because it seems as though he genuinely cares for her, versus Roy’s need to flirt and pursue other women to prove that he “still had it.” All though Andre’s character comes into question because he only expressed his feelings after Roy was locked up, and he thought he wouldn’t have to deal with the repercussions of moving in on his best friend’s wife. I think that Celestial and Andre decided not to get married out of fear. It’s possible that Andre feared Celestial would leave him the same way she left Roy, and Celestial feared she wouldn’t uphold the title since she failed the first time around (especially after she struggled reciting her vows during the ceremony with Roy). As a couple, I do feel like Andre and Celestial will be good and nurturing parents, since their daughter was born out of love. If Roy and Celestial would have moved forward with their unborn child, I can’t say that they would have been better parents, I just think they would have parented differently since they all had different upbringings.
11) Do you think that Andre strategized to get Celestial to fall in love with him, or did it happen naturally? Do you feel that it was a surprise to them that it happened after all those years? Do you predict that Celestial’s parents will come to accept Andre as her life partner?
I do think that Andre strategized to a degree. Once Roy was sentenced, he made himself more available to Celestial, whereas he probably wouldn’t have done so if Roy was around. I know that Celestial and Andre grew up together, but it's hard to believe that Celestial didn’t have any other female friends; especially once we learned that Celestial attended Spelman and that she still lived in Atlanta. Where were these other friends when Celestial needed support? I only believe that Celestial took their budding relationship as a surprise - she seems rather aloof and heavily involved with herself. Once Andre and Celestial’s daughter arrives, I think Celestial’s parents will come to accept Andre in their lives.
12) Toward the end of the novel, Celestial does a complete about-face and returns to Roy. What do you think her emotions were in coming to that decision? Do you feel that it was the right decision?
When Celestial returns to Roy, I think her guilt is kicking in. She knows that she owes him something - a conversation, a hug, a kiss - to provide closure for their marriage. She wrote him a Dear John letter dissolving their marriage and expected him to just accept it. She knew that wasn’t going to fly so she decided to give him the time he needed realize that their marriage was over.