An American Marriage is a contemporary fiction by Tayari Jones. It is a love story, but not a conventional one. It explores the complexities of love, marriage, family, and social justice.
Newlyweds Roy and Celestial are an African American couple whose marriage is challenged when Roy is arrested and wrongfully convicted of a crime. The novel shows the emotional and psychological effects of the separation, and how race, class, and the criminal justice system play into the experience.
The first third of An American Marriage is about newlyweds Celestial and Roy, with each of them having one chapter to set the stage. In the last two-thirds of the book, the third in their triangle, Andre, gets to add his perspective to the story.
Celestial’s mother was initially her father’s mistress. They got married after she got pregnant, but their marriage has been strong for over 30 years. Mr. Davenport is rich from having developed a patent for preventing orange juice from separating quickly; Mrs. Davenport works in education.
Celestial first went to college at Howard for one year. After a disastrous affair with one of her professors, which ended her naïveté with an abortion, she transferred to Spelman.
Andre and Celestial
Andre and Celestial grew up in houses opposite each other as best friends. After they were together one night in high school, Celestial said that they should resume being friends. Andre concurred, and their friendship continued into the years.
Celestial regularly slept in Andre’s dorm, platonically. She first heard Roy’s name from various women through the thin wall between his dorm and Andre’s: Roy Othaniel Hamilton. When Roy came over to try to get coins from Andre to do laundry one morning, Celestial met him. But it was years later before they got together.
Celestial and Andre met again years later in Atlanta, at a restaurant where Celestial worked. Celestial was an artist who made dolls, and Roy had a promising career. When they got married, Roy was ready to have a baby right away, but Celestial wanted to wait. She announced that they could start a family on their one-year anniversary, but then she found another woman’s business card with what she assumed was a hotel room number, and that shut down the conversation.
A year and a half later, Celestial and Roy went to Eloe, Louisiana to visit Roy’s parents one Labor Day weekend. Roy’s mother, Olive, and Celestial were not warm with each other and Celestial preferred to sleep at a hotel. At the hotel where they were staying that night, Roy revealed that Olive was already pregnant with him when she met and married Roy Sr. He never knew his biological father beyond a name; Roy Sr. brought him up as his son. Celestial didn’t react well; she saw the secret as a lack of Roy’s commitment to her and their marriage. Roy went to get ice to give Celestial time to call Andre and calm down. There, he met an older woman about his mother’s age. They chatted a bit and Roy helped her carry the ice to her room. He also worked to fix her toilet. On his way out, he pointed out that the loose doorknob needed repair.
The next day, as Roy and Celestial were having breakfast, the police came for Roy. The old lady from the night before had been raped and accused Roy of the crime.
Roy had a promising career, a wife he loved, and hoped to start a family. He had affairs every once in a while, but he enjoyed his life.
When he and Celestial went to visit his parents, he decided to tell her his whole story, the parts he’d held back. He hoped that would draw them closer. That night, in Eloe, they decided to start a family. All their plans are usurped when Roy is arrested for rape, a crime he couldn’t have committed while being with Celestial.
After 100 days in prison, Roy has a trial and is sentenced to 12 years. When he was about to get the family he wanted, life threw a curveball. He and Celestial decided not to have the baby, a decision that further strained their marriage and haunted them.
The Prison Years
In prison, Roy learns how to do what it takes to survive. He gets help and counsel from Walter, his biological father, who manages to get them into the same cell. Roy survives farm labor and the other abuses of prison life. He learns the lessons that help him stay alive in prison, but they are not lessons that apply to a free life.
Celestial receives an investment from her father to start her business, Poupees. She makes and sells expensive and designer dolls of all shades. Roy was her muse, so many of the dolls resemble Roy. She sewed in a fury while Roy was on trial and in prison, and her business flourished.
As Celestial became more successful, she and Roy grew further apart. He felt deserted as she gave interviews and never mentioned him. Their relationship became more and more strained.
Olive visited Roy every week until she died. Celestial’s visits started out regular but then dwindled. She excused herself as being busy; she struggled with living a life in the present and in the past.
When Olive died from cancer, Andre went to visit Roy. Roy asked him to stand in his place to carry his mother’s coffin to her grave, and Andre agreed. In the cemetery, Roy Jr. insisted on burying his wife with his own hands. He wouldn’t let Andre help. Seeing Roy’s devotion to his wife, Celestial could not envision the same with Roy. She wanted a life, a future that she could build towards.
Andre and Celestial had always been there for each other, always supported each other. Perhaps Andre always loved her. With Roy gone, they drew together and their love flourished. After three years in prison, Celestial wrote Roy a Dear John letter, telling him that she couldn’t wait for him. Although Roy had told her not to wait during the trial, he did not want to let her go. Even though she stopped communicating with him, she kept putting money in his account at the commissary and in Walter’s. This gave Roy hope; he thought that she must still care for him and that he could win her back.
After five years in prison, Roy is released, and his conviction is overturned. A family friend of the Davenports, Uncle Banks, had worked on his case all these years and achieved some success. At Thanksgiving dinner, Celestial told the rest of the family, with Andre at her side. Her father had some ugly words for her, disapproving of her relationship with Andre and encouraging her commitment to her (still) husband.
Roy was released three days earlier than initially announced. His father picked him up and brought him home.
Saving a Marriage
Roy struggles to make sense of the world he is released into. He feels the absence of his wife, of having a woman by his side. When he is invited for dinner by a woman he knew from high school, he accepts her invitation. He spends 36 hours with her, a time he considers one of healing. He returns to his father’s home to find his father waiting and worried about him.
Roy is conflicted; he has to decide if to accept Celestial’s Dear John letter or fight for her. When Andre announced his plan to come to pick up Roy, that confirmed Roy’s suspicions. Roy and his father devised a plan for Roy to speak to Celestial alone, free of Andre.
As Andre heads from Atlanta to Eloe, Roy takes the journey in the opposite direction. When his key still works in his old home; he takes that as a good sign, and he enters and waits for her there.
Celestial is shocked and disconcerted to find Roy in her home, the house her father bought for them as a wedding gift. They get a reprieve from their conversation when Celestial’s employee drops by with her son for the evening. On her way out, she warns Roy that he will get hurt if he pursues his marriage.
Over several hours, Roy and Celestial talk. When Roy wants to go to bed, she succumbs to him; she is willing to sacrifice herself but not without a layer of protection, which Roy won’t accept.
When Celestial shows Roy his boxed items which she put away in the garage, this enrages him. He looks through the boxes trying to find the tooth he lost while trying to play the hero and run down a thief who stole from her on their first date. The assailant struck him in the mouth and loosened a front tooth. He empties all the boxes in the yard, but does not find the missing tooth. Next, he attacks her car and then the special tree in the front yard, the one that her father had them promise not to cut down. This is what he is still doing when Andre returns.
Roy and Andre fight right there in the front yard. Recalling his father’s advice to let Andre beat him up as justice for taking his wife, Andre puts up little fight. Celestial, who they had sent inside the house, came back outside threatening to call the police, a threat that further enrages Roy. Although Celestial does not call the police, they show up. The three explain away the fight and the police leave. Celestial sends Andre home and goes indoors with Roy.
Celestial chooses Roy and decides to give him a chance. Yet, her body puts on its own resistance. Roy feels Celestial’s body tensing to his touch. This is when he starts to realize that he cannot save his marriage.
The Ending of An American Marriage
We learn how the story ends from letters back and forth between Roy and Celestial.
Roy goes back to Eloe and to Davina. She already has a son, a boy who is in prison. She and Roy decide to get married, but she doesn’t want any more children.
Celestial and Andre are expecting a baby. Celestial doesn’t want to get married again, but she is ready to start a family.
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