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.
The 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.