For Better or For Worse? ‘An American Marriage’ grapples with a harsh reality



Kimberly Wilson, Opinion Editor

Reading Time: 3 minutes


*Spoilers Ahead!!!*

Tayari Jones’ “An American Marriage” is a powerful novel that tells the story of a young, black couple whose lives are changed by the actions of a stranger. Throughout the book, which was released in 2018, Jones tackles the personal side of the effects of racism in the justice system as well as the challenges of keeping a marriage together when faced with such difficulties.

The story is told from the point-of-view of newlyweds Roy and Celestial, as well as their good friend Andre, who is a pivotal character. While visiting Roy’s parents in the fictional town of Eloe, LA., Roy and Celestial stay the night at a hotel because of the strained relationship Celestial has with Roy’s mother stemming from Celestial’s upper-class background. While there, the plot takes a shocking turn as the police barge into their room in the middle of the night.   

Before this, Roy was an up-and-coming business executive and a graduate of Morehouse College. He was a successful black man who’d escaped the adverse effects structural racism has had on many African Americans until he was suddenly drawn back in.

Roy is subsequently wrongfully accused of sexually assaulting a woman he’d crossed paths with at the hotel’s ice machine, and sentenced to 12 years in prison.

In the book, Jones, who’s spent several months during a Harvard University fellowship studying the tie between race and criminal justice, shows no matter how successful a black man may be in America, it’s entirely too easy for him to be sucked into the country’s prison industrial complex.

Tanzina Vega wrote in an article for CNN that, according to a report from the National Registry of Exonerations, “black people are more likely to be wrongfully convicted than white people and are also likely to spend longer in prison before being exonerated for their crimes.” The report also found black people represent a staggering 47% of the registry’s 1,900 exonerations.   

The book’s first-person narration encapsulates how the events that unfold affected each of the story’s key characters. Throughout the story, we see three emotional and earnest takes on how these characters’ lives are altered. It’s as if each character is pleading a case, and the reader must pick a side.

After Roy goes to prison, he and Celestial try their best to keep their marriage intact. One of the most compelling chapters of the book consists of moving letters they send each other detailing their new lives in which they are forced to spend apart.

In these letters, it was always clear they loved each other and, despite how bitterly unjust their situation was, they were trying to make it work. Until it wasn’t. The letters gradually became, tense, then the proverbial last nail was delivered. Celestial stopped signing “love,” a final signal to the reader that she’d reached her breaking point.

One of the things this novel does so well is highlight many of our natural inclinations towards idealism over realism. Throughout the majority of the book, Roy is adamant Celestial should stay with him, and it’s very easy for the reader to take his side. He was unjustly accused of a crime he didn’t commit and robbed of the best years of his life. And she had made a vow to stay with him “for better or for worse.”

What happens after the book’s enthralling climax forces Roy to reconcile with the fact that no matter how deeply he felt his marriage should survive, reality had had its way. Celestial had moved on. The reader, along with Roy, is also made to accept this difficult truth.

Black men being wrongfully accused and imprisoned is something America is all too familiar with. But the story of how it rips lives and families apart is one that isn’t often spoken about. “An American Marriage” captures the story of these characters coming to grips with what has happened, and it does something even more sobering. It makes the reader think of all the people this has happened to in real life, and how it’s permanently changed their lives as well.