Jones’ com­plex ‘Mar­riage’ a plea­sur­able af­fair

Boston Herald - - THE EDGE - By KAREN R. LONG NEWS­DAY

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 up­per­class 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.

As she did with “Sil­ver Spar­row,” an in­can­des­cent novel of teenage half­sis­ters, 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 let­ters “love”; Ce­les­tial signs hers “yours,” un­til the “dear John” in­stall­ment ar­rives.

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.

“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.

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