Jones’ complex ‘Marriage’ a pleasurable affair
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.