Algonquin Books
February 08, 2018 at 01:10 PM EST

An American Marriage

Algonquin Books
publication date
Tayari Jones
We gave it an A-

For richer and poorer, in sickness and health, until death. On their wedding day Celestial Davenport and Roy Hamilton hear only the joy in those words, not the warning. Why shouldn’t they? The future belongs to them, as full and bright with wide-open promise as the new millennium. (Equality is even written into their vows: The bride will love and honor, but not obey.) And then 18 months later, it all falls apart. Roy is accused of assaulting a stranger at a roadside motel, though Celestial knows he’s been next to her all night. The jury is unmoved by evidence and her insistence; they hand down a 12-year sentence and lock him away.

It would be easy to file Tayari Jones’ freshly anointed Oprah’s Book Club pick in the eat-your-vegetables domain of the Issues Novel, a timely polemic on race and justice. Instead it delivers something much warmer and subtler and more human — a deeply felt, fully lived-in love story. Celestial and Roy each bring their own distinct selves to the union; he’s a striving small-town kid (“If my childhood were a sandwich, there would be no meat hanging off the bread”) on the executive track; she’s fiercer but dreamier, too, a gifted artist with an M.F.A. and the full support of her wealthy parents. She also has Andre, her best friend since they bathed in the sink as babies, who becomes her emotional rock when Roy goes away, and then something more.

In swift, smart strokes, Jones (Silver Sparrow) lays out the crime and the aftermath­, much of it through the letters that are, for a time, the couple’s only steady way to communicate. And what lies between the lines: the slow retreat of everyday connection, the sadness and regret that harden into absence. “When something happens that eclipses the imaginable, it changes a person,” Celestial muses. “It’s like the difference between a raw egg and a scrambled egg. It’s the same thing, but it’s not the same at all.” Like her, it’s impossible not to feel altered by Marriage — not gladly, exactly, but still for the better. A-

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