Roy Hamilton, a sales rep looking to climb the corporate ladder, is a country boy from working class Eloe, Louisiana. Celestial Davenport, a gifted artist who hails from the upper crust of Atlanta, wears “her pedigree like the gloss on a patent-leather shoe.” They meet briefly while undergraduates in Atlanta — Roy on a scholarship for first generation students at Morehouse College, and Celestial, a transfer student from Howard now enrolled at Spelman.
In Tayari Jones’ breathtaking new novel, “An American Marriage,” the fireworks don’t spark until they bump into each other in New York City four years later, where Celestial, who Roy affectionately calls “Georgia,” is attending graduate school.
The newlyweds have their share of typical problems. Unlike Roy, Celestial isn’t ready to start a family. She grows increasingly irritated with the secrets Roy keeps from her. Roy wishes Celestial would be kinder to his prickly mother Olive. But the couple is undoubtedly deeply in love, committed and excited about their future together, however bumpy it might be.
A year and a half after their wedding, while visiting Roy’s parents in Louisiana, Roy is falsely accused of a horrific crime and is sentenced to 12 years in prison. Says Roy: “Looking back on it, it’s like watching a horror flick and wondering why the characters are so determined to ignore the danger signs. When a spectral voice says, GET OUT, you should do it. But in real life, you don’t know that you’re in a scary movie.”
Author of the critically acclaimed “Leaving Atlanta” and “Silver Sparrow,” and a new inductee to the Georgia Writers Hall of Fame, Jones poses two poignant questions. Can a new marriage survive incarceration? And even if it does, should it? Through multiple points of view, she chronicles how Roy’s imprisonment takes a toll on his health, financial stability, and security, and also grievously distresses his family and friends.
In the trenchant letters Roy and Celestial exchange, they contemplate the lives they are forced to forge alone.
“Don’t ask me questions about the details,” Roy writes. “Just suffice it to say that it’s bad in here. Even if you killed somebody, you don’t deserve to spend more than a couple of years in this place.” Writes Celestial: “Sometimes it’s exhausting for me to simply walk into the house. I try and calm myself, remember that I’ve lived alone before. Sleeping by myself didn’t kill me then and will not kill me now. But this is what loss has taught me of love. Our house isn’t simply empty, our home has been emptied.”
Regret is a third party that needles its way into every intimate interaction. “I can’t believe we wasted so much time fussing over nothing. I think about every time I hurt you,” Roy writes. “I think about the times when I could have made you feel secure, but I let you worry simply because I liked being worried about you. I think about that and I feel like a damn fool. A damn lonesome fool.”
Celestial is haunted by the night of Roy’s arrest, specifically the argument that transpired between them. “Memory is a queer creature, an eccentric curator. I still look back on that night, although not as often as I once did. How long can you live with your face twisted over your shoulder? But I didn’t forget, no matter what people may say. This was not a failure to remember.”
While Roy is in prison, Celestial’s doll-making business takes off. She has less time to drive six hours to the prison in Louisiana. Though Roy has always supported her art, he’s racked with feelings of envy and neglect. Their communication becomes sporadic and their minor unresolved conflicts morph into impenetrable roadblocks. “The chilly rationale of hindsight is what exposes the how and why of something that once seemed supernatural.”
Family members both ameliorate and exacerbate the tension between them. Roy’s mother maintains a suspicious and cold manner toward Celestial, and Celestial’s father, while sympathetic toward his son-in-law, refuses to serve as a go-between when Roy reaches out to him. Adding to the stress is Roy’s pending appeal, which makes its way through the court system at a snail’s pace.
In a letter to the reader, Jones relays the affecting conversation she overheard at the mall that inspired “An American Marriage.” It appears almost verbatim in the book. “Roy, you know you wouldn’t have waited on me for seven years,” a woman said. The man replied: “This wouldn’t have happened to you in the first place.”
Jones has spun this brief exchange into a dynamic story that ruminates on the short and long term emotional consequences of incarceration. She gracefully refrains from spoon-feeding readers canned resolutions or platitudes, and refuses to solely blame the grave injustice that keeps Roy and Celestial apart for all of their transgressions. For just like everyone else, they are flawed, imperfect yet authentic people.
Jones’ edifying and penetrating prose is never sentimental or overblown. She remains laser-focused on the gradual loss of trust in their relationship, the trauma that outlives a sentence served, and the nuances of guilt when one-half of a couple loses his freedom, while the other half lives it out loud.
And through her indelible characters, Jones masterfully probes denial and the ways it slowly seeps into the cracks and crevices of a shaky marriage until at last, it fully embodies it. “Only our bodies know the truth,” admits Celestial, years after Roy’s arrest. “Bones don’t lie.”