book review: An American Marriage by Tayari Jones



Algonquin Books, 2018


I think this is a good book, if an unbalanced one. I felt like I was getting whiplash from the amount of times I veered from admiration to frustration and then back again. An American Marriage chronicles the doomed romance of Roy and Celestial: the two have a passionate (if slightly tempestuous) relationship, but only a year and a half into their marriage Roy is sentenced to 12 years in prison for a crime they both know he didn’t commit.

The first section of this book is, in my opinion, the most compelling. We watch Roy and Celestial’s marriage crumble through a series of letters they send one another while Roy is in prison. It’s hard not to be moved by the situation’s tragedy at this point: there’s never any question that Roy and Celestial love one another, but torn apart by circumstances outside of their control, the cracks that begin to form are unavoidable. Roy and Celestial aren’t particularly likable characters, and their relationship isn’t necessarily one we find ourselves rooting for, but I do have to admire the way Tayari Jones allows her protagonists to be imperfect.

In part 2, the novel’s momentum comes to a screeching halt. While the first hundred pages take place over five years, the next two hundred take place over a couple of days. So what was shaping up to be a rather pacy read becomes a bit of a slog at this point, and an oddly melodramatic one. And while Tayari Jones offers some wonderful and incisive commentary throughout about race, marriage, and parenthood, I did feel like the element of racial injustice in the US legal system was a bit underdeveloped. Instead the novel’s premise ultimately felt like a rather perfunctory backdrop which was being used to explore the strain a marriage undergoes while the partners are forced to separate. Certainly an interesting theme, but after several hundred pages of this I was hoping for a bit more depth in other areas which instead felt a bit contrived and simplistic.

But I will say, what I admired the most about this novel was how equitable it was. I didn’t feel like Tayari Jones was trying to manipulate the reader into taking either Roy or Celestial’s side, and I felt like she was very cognizant of the fact that there are no easy answers in a situation as convoluted as this one. So ultimately I’m just a bit torn – this was at times exhilarating and at times boring; sometimes incredibly perceptive and sometimes underdeveloped. I think this is a worthwhile read and a worthwhile addition to the Women’s Prize 2019 longlist, but ultimately it wasn’t as impactful as I thought it would end up being when I first picked it up. Still, it’s a quick and thought-provoking read and I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it.

You can pick up a copy of An American Marriage here on Book Depository.

19 thoughts on “book review: An American Marriage by Tayari Jones

  1. Great review. I felt pretty similarly about this one; it started very promisingly but seemed to change its trajectory later on. I think I rated this four stars originally but have been thinking of bumping it down as I consider it more lately, especially as part of the Women’s Prize list. I enjoyed reading it and I do think it makes some valuable observations, but it hasn’t stayed with me as favorably over time.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I was torn between 3 and 4 – there is a LOT that I loved and admired, despite my criticisms, but at the end of the day I have a feeling the negative is what I’m going to dwell on when I look back at this… I definitely don’t resent its place on the longlist but I don’t think I’d like to see it shortlisted. I really hope Ordinary People (which sounds a bit similar) is better!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I’m pretty much with you – less because of the pacing and focus issues, which I found oddly refreshing (more stories about black people and their relationships that don’t focus solely on racial injustice, please!), and more because I thought the prose was kind of medium-roast. Eventually concluded that it deserves a spot on the longlist, but I would be less delighted if it were shortlisted.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Oh I couldn’t agree more that we need black stories that aren’t ‘issue books’ (my bad if I implied otherwise!) – I just felt that the social justice angle was meant to be a focus here and not always given adequate follow-through. But yes, totally agree, the sentence by sentence writing was… serviceable but very uninspiring. I wouldn’t want to see this one shortlisted either – of the 9 I’ve read this is only the second that I’ve given a rating under 4 stars. I’m hoping for better things from Ordinary People!


  3. I’m intrigued by this! This will probably be in the first half of books I get around to. I might try to stop by the library to grab something off the shortlist tonight, since I’m almost done with I’ll Be Gone in the Dark!

    Liked by 1 person

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