"An American Marriage: A Novel" by Tayari Jones; Algonquin (320 pages, $26.95)
The plot of "An American Marriage" – Tayari Jones' fourth and best novel – could be aptly summarized through a single sentence from one of its three protagonists: "I never imagined myself to be the kind of woman who would find herself with both a husband and a fiance."
Even Celestial's use of reflexive pronouns betrays how internally divided she is – par for the course in a novel that creates three fully rounded and internally conflicted characters from this love triangle while nevertheless nimbly refusing to take sides.
Easier said than done, when one considers the circumstances leading to Celestial's dilemma. After Celestial has been married in Atlanta for just "a year and some change" to Roy, her husband is wrongly convicted of rape and sentenced to 12 years in his native Louisiana, where he and Celestial had been visiting Roy's parents.
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Long before Roy's conviction is overturned five years into his sentence, Celestial has moved in with Andre, the boy next door whom she's known since she was a baby and who'd been Roy's best man.
"What did Roy do to deserve any of this?," Celestial's father angrily asks, when she and Andre tell him they plan to marry. "He didn't do anything but be a black man in the wrong place at the wrong time."
Should Celestial have stood by her man? A good but flawed person, would he have similarly stood by her?
Jones doesn't offer easy answers. But she does make clear that much as Roy and Celestial loved each other during their salad days as up-and-comers in Atlanta – he'd been in sales, and she's a folk artist making expensive dolls – their marriage wasn't perfect. Once a playboy, Roy hadn't entirely lost his roving eye; strong and independent, Celestial is ambivalent about marriage.
If Roy hadn't been black – in a country, Jones suggests, where no black man is safe – perhaps they'd have made it; one can imagine them right at home in the world of Anne Tyler. Jones writes about marriage with an equally sophisticated awareness that the substance is in the details, not all of them pretty. Marriage, one of Jones' characters says, teaches you your limitations.
As with the murders that haunt Jones' "Leaving Atlanta" (2002) and the personal betrayal that sows a whirlwind in "Silver Sparrow" (2011), Jones' characters here try and fail to outrun the limitations of their own history – itself forever entangled in the fractured history of black America.
That history isn't just about race; Jones also never loses sight of its intersection with class. Celestial and Andre come from comparatively well-off Atlanta families; Roy is an illegitimate child raised by a poor family in rural Louisiana. Roy had fantasized naming a child Future and avoiding mention of a cotton-picking past. Once in prison, he must pick soybeans.
For Jones, history is also always about gender. Three characters' fathers leave them behind when they're children; a fourth is the product of two people whose marriage began in adultery. "Women's work is never easy, never clean," Celestial tells us, explaining what it means to be torn between desire and duty, freedom and responsibility, love and family.
As with Roy and Andre, Celestial gives us her perspective through her share of this novel's rotating first-person accounts of what happened; they're interrupted at two points by collections of letters, measuring the growing distance between characters who'd once shared a bed and a life.
Celestial is Jones' finest creation to date; selfish because she must be to be true to herself, she nevertheless tries to honor the many others – mostly men – who want to shape her in their image.
Meanwhile, Jones' profile of those men – Roy and Andre as well as this novel's many fathers – represents a major upgrade from "Silver Sparrow." True to its title, "An American Marriage" speaks universal truths, even as its author and characters never forget who they are and where they're from.