Book Review: An American Marriage

An American Marriage Review - The Well Dressed Life

Boy, Oprah sure knows how to pick ‘em! I loved this book, and I am so glad that we followed up last month’s disappointment with An American Marriage.

An American Marriage ReviewThe short synopsis reads:

“Newlyweds Celestial and Roy are the embodiment of both the American Dream and the New South. He is a young executive, and she is an artist on the brink of an exciting career. But as they settle into the routine of their life together, they are ripped apart by circumstances neither could have imagined. Roy is arrested and sentenced to twelve years for a crime Celestial knows he didn’t commit. Though fiercely independent, Celestial finds herself bereft and unmoored, taking comfort in Andre, her childhood friend, and best man at their wedding. As Roy’s time in prison passes, she is unable to hold on to the love that has been her center. After five years, Roy’s conviction is suddenly overturned, and he returns to Atlanta ready to resume their life together.”

I’ve always said that I try not to read books that I know are going to be sad. Same goes for movies and TV shows. I have never watched The Notebook and I’m never going to watch This is Us. Saying “Oh it’s so sad! I was SOBBING in the first minute!” is not a ringing endorsement for me. But I loved An American Marriage and I cried through the whole darn thing. That being said, would I categorize this as a sad book? It was sad, but also uncomfortable, maddening, and frustrating.

Let’s talk about the relationship of the two main characters, Celestial and Roy. Their relationship barely had time to take root when Roy was sent to prison. I wonder how their relationship would have fared otherwise, because it wasn’t without its flaws. The fact that they were from two different backgrounds, he from a hardworking, down-to-earth family and she from a well-to-do academic family, could pose enough conflict to keep the relationship from getting off the ground. There was an undercurrent of this imbalance that ran throughout the story, and without his incarceration, would that have bubbled to the surface and caused irreparable resentment and conflict? Furthermore, it was hinted that Roy had some extramarital transgressions in that first year and a half. He explained it away and I too believed him, but we learned later that these transgressions were real and there were more than one.

If we readers could speculate, I don’t think we would be far off to say that this alone would have taken a toll on, and possibly doomed, the relationship had it had the chance to progress “normally.” I am not saying any of this to downplay just how life-altering and tragic Roy’s incarceration was, but to point out how the author was able to paint a very real and nuanced story with very real and nuanced characters. Without these flaws, the story wouldn’t have resonated with me, and I would have categorized this book as “grief porn” as I so eloquently like to put it.

Celestial put a valiant effort into supporting Roy during his incarceration, for a time. She visited, and they wrote beautiful love letters to each other. But letters and jailhouse visitation does not make a marriage. But eventually she became emotionally detached, which I think was both a natural progression and a defense mechanism. It’s hard to love and be dedicated to someone who simply is not there. She coped by falling in love with her childhood friend Andre. Did you feel like it was real love? I didn’t. I felt like it was a romance of convenience. Andre always loved her and waited years for his love to be returned. He just waited it out and the time when he finally got what he wanted was when her husband was incarcerated. Man, that’s tough for me to get behind.

Though I have to say, if I were Celestial, I probably would have done the same thing. Comfort, stability, and calmness would be very attractive after that kind of tragedy. But I can’t help shake the feeling that this romance with Andre is actually another tragic piece of this story. She doesn’t love him for the same reasons that he loves her.

An American Marriage also weaves in the timely topic of racism and mass incarceration, and I was deeply affected by these passages in the story. The fact that people are falsely imprisoned, ruining their lives and the lives of their loved ones, is…well, are there words for it? In one particularly heart-wrenching scene, Roy misses his beloved mother’s funeral, and has to ask another man to carry her casket in his place. I was just sobbing in my airplane seat while reading this. How are we doing this to each other? How is this happening?

When Megan and I were discussing this portion of the book, she pointed me in the direction of Writing My Wrongs: Life, Death, and Redemption in an American Prison. An American Marriage touched me enough that I feel like I should read a real-life account of this topic, and so I have pledged to read it this year. I found Roy’s journey after he was released to be fascinating. I try to be empathetic with the characters in the books I read, and I was able to put myself in Celestial’s shoes and imagine how I would have acted and reacted if I were in a similar situation. But I was unable to do that with Roy after he was released. I could not draw from any personal experience to imagine what I would do, and so I let Roy show me that even after suffering such an injustice, there is still hope and the possibility of happiness.

Did you love this book? Tell me why or why not. I loved it. I think what I loved about it most of all is how it weaved together a truly tragic story without being melodramatic, but instead thoughtful.

Book Review: The Immortalists

Book Review: The Immortalists

This review contains spoilers. Do not read unless you have finished reading The Immortalists. 

I normally rip through books, but this book took me a long time to get through. Partially because I was bored and mostly because I just didn’t care.

The premise of this book is interesting. On a hot, New York Summer day, four siblings learn the date of their future deaths from a gypsy in their neighborhood. The story is then divided into four parts where we follow them through their lives and how this prophecy has affected them. It brings up some very interesting questions. Would you want to know the date of your death? How would you respond? I expected an interesting journey exploring fate and self-fulfilling prophecies, with an sub-story about family dynamics. Instead we got this complete mess where the original premise of the book was largely ignored. I felt like I was flipping through the channels on TV and each sibling’s story was on a different channel. I never felt like any story was fully fleshed out and hated all of the loose-end conversation starters that were shoved into the story.

Book Review: The Immortalists

Simon’s Story

I nearly quit reading the book after reading Simon’s story. I felt let down by the author; Simon’s story could have been so nuanced and interesting, but I felt as though it was rushed and ham-handed. I have read many stories and watched many movies that broaches the topic of the outbreak of the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the early 80s, but this was the only one where I just frankly did not care about any of the characters. Part of the problem is that the characters were underdeveloped. Of course, Simon was young, so you could argue that his character was supposed to be stunted and superficial. But I’m not buying it. His great affection and friendship with Klara was stated, not shown. The decision to leave his family was nothing more than a typical teenage rebellion, not some deep tribute to his unmatched relationship with his sister or need to explore his sexuality freely. Those were the stated reasons, but it didn’t come through in Simon’s character. I struggled to understand why he needed to completely cut off his family. It seemed like a cruel footnote in the story, and I felt the author made me do a lot of writing in my head to connect the dots and add some emotional depth to Simon and this decision.

To pour more salt into this wound, Simon’s sex scenes felt gratuitous and the quick ascension to top ballerino felt convenient. Who knew it was so easy! I perked up when Robert entered the story, thinking that this is where Simon would bloom and turn into a dimensional person. But he didn’t, and poor, wooden Robert suffered worse. He was a plot device. Robert seemed to have no normal, human reaction to finding out that Simon had “gay cancer,” he simply took care of him with no emotions. There was no anger, no sadness, nothing. Then it seemed as if Elaine Benes came to the editing table and said “yada, yada, yada” and then Simon died. I was dry-eyed and unmoved during the death scene.

So what did we learn from Simon’s story? I know I didn’t learn anything new about the HIV/AIDS crisis, nor did I feel like it shed a fresh, emotional perspective on it. So what about the prophecy? One potential answer to the question “what would you do if you found out the date of your death?” would be to “live as freely as possible. Throw caution to the wind and do whatever I wanted.” It seems like this idea is the premise of Simon’s story. He certainly did do whatever he wanted, however he wanted it. But it seems like he added another piece to the answer. Simon answered the question with “Live as freely as possible. Throw caution to the wind and do whatever I wanted, with complete disregard to anyone around me.” Did he stop loving everyone and completely detach himself from those he loved the moment he heard the prophecy? I think so. I think he did this to protect himself, but it’s not something I can sympathize with or relate to, which is why I hated his story so much. His story could have been told in a way where we sympathized with the youngest sibling dying the youngest, and wrestling with the twin demons of the prophecy and his sexuality in a brief, intense life. But sadly, we didn’t get that story.

Klara’s Story

Klara’s story was the one that I cared about the most, if I had to pick one. Perhaps I connected because I have a baby girl and since I am pregnant, I am emotional. Ruby was the most likable character in the book and I wanted to hug her and care for her both when she is shown as a baby and as a teenager later in this story.

Did anyone else imagine Klara as a magician version of Britney Spears? Maybe that was just me, but I saw Klara as free-spirited and wide-eyed in her younger days, who was pushed into a level of stardom, however middling it was, by someone much more ambitious than she. And in this pursuit of fame, while dealing with the loss of her brother and father, she turned to alcohol for coping. She seemed like a passenger in her own life, partially driven by Raj and partially driven by the prophecy. She liked her magic, but then it lost its magic (pun intended) for her as she was closer to her death date. It drove her into madness. She died because she made it so; She made it happen. Would it have happened had she not taken her own life? I thought for sure that she would have died doing one of her stunts, so this twist was not one I saw coming and which did affect me. The scene of her saying goodbye for her daughter was almost too much for me to read and I set the book down for a few days. It was one of the rare moments while reading this book that I felt any sort of sympathy for or connection to any of the characters.

Klara’s reaction to the prophecy was the most real. She tried to stay true to herself and live her life as she always intended. She had been interested in magic since she was a child and so her pursuit of it in adulthood felt genuine. But the dreaded anticipation of her death date was too much to bear and it literally killed her, opening the conversation for self-fulfilling prophecies. I am not sure I could handle knowing my death date. I admire Klara for trying to live her life as if she was in control. The fact that she couldn’t do it anymore humanized her and made her seem more real than the other characters.

Daniel’s Story

Daniel’s story I found to be so absurd that I don’t even know how to review it without cursing and smashing my fists on the keyboard. The author picks up the topics of religion and military and then just…sets them back down on the table. It’s as if she wanted to sink her teeth into these topics and then said to herself, “no wait a minute. Ignore the religion, let’s bring in a detective and then a detective hot pursuit scene!” The author tried so hard to be deep but just wrote a Cliff’s Notes version of a much deeper book.

We learn a great deal of backstory about the woman who told the children the prophecy, and honestly, I just felt a little bad for her. I think we were supposed to hate her. We also learned about how Ruby and Raj turned out, and I was happy to read that great wealth and an overly ambitious father did not spoil Ruby. She turned out to be a curious girl who wanted to do more with her life and was happy to connect to her family. She couldn’t have turned out better, given her circumstances.

But Daniel unraveled from a stand-up military doctor to an unemployed, unhinged would-be murderer in a span of days. What? Did anyone find any of this remotely believable? Like Klara, I suppose he forced the truth of his death date. But why? It seemed out of character and far-fetched. The detective showed up out of the blue and gave Daniel all the information ammunition he needed. And then he showed up again to shoot him.

I have to move on before I start cursing.

Varya’s Story

Much like with Simon’s story, the author set Varya’s adult life in a controversial world. Animal testing is a hot-button issue which could have added a lot of interesting talking points to the book. But I feel like, again, the author is shoehorning this in to make the book more interesting! Exciting! Book-Club-Conversation-Worthy! The premise of four siblings hearing a prophecy of the dates of their deaths is interesting all on its own and if it was explored properly the author wouldn’t need to use multi-layered and heady topics such as homosexuality, AIDS, and animal testing to force depth or interest. It’s tantamount to a boring person collecting idiosyncratic tendencies to make up a personality.

Varya decided, like Simon, to largely cut personal relationships out of her life, even though her prophecy stated that she would live a long 88 years. Varya experienced more than her fair share of death after outliving her father and two brothers. She kept a relationship with her mother, though that wasn’t fleshed out for us fully, but largely kept friends and lovers at bay. Instead, she dedicated her life to finding the cure for aging, so to speak, which does make sense considering the heartbreak she has endured.

But then we had to bring in the long-lost son storyline. I groaned when Luke was revealed not to be a reporter, but to be her son. Was this plot twist necessary? Did it enhance the book? If you threw out this part of Varya’s story, would it have been less interesting? I don’t think so. Could there have been a different trigger that could have brought Varya to her mental breakdown other than a son who came out of left field? It would have been interesting if it was just between Varya, her career, her losses, her love for Frida and the prophecy. But instead Luke was the trigger that melted the ice princess and led her to live the second half of her life in an open, loving way. I felt it simplified the complexity that Varya was building up; the easier way to wrap up all of those loose ends is to just make her a mother. As if just being a mother can heal all wounds.

In the end, of course, we don’t find out if Varya actually lived to 88. We weren’t supposed to care because she “moved on” from the prophecy?! ::sigh, book thrown::

Now everyone knows what I think. What did YOU think?