A fractured fairy tale

Tayari Jones’ new novel examines marriage under the strain of incarceration

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.”

Reader Comments ...

Next Up in Living

Kevin Hart claps back at Katt Williams over Williams’ Tiffany Haddish critique on V-103
Kevin Hart claps back at Katt Williams over Williams’ Tiffany Haddish critique on V-103

Kevin Hart went on a rant on the Breakfast Club syndicated radio show this morning defending his good friend Tiffany Haddish a week after Georgia-based comic Katt Williams told V-103 her fame was undeserved. He also said Williams’ problems are of his own creation. "My frustration with Katt Williams comes from, you keep pointing...
11 of best places in and close to Georgia for fall foliage
11 of best places in and close to Georgia for fall foliage

Every year, Georgia’s leaves turn spectacular shades of yellow, burnt orange, deep magenta, even crimson. It’s getting to be that time of year — even if it feels like a never-ending summer. Typically, Georgia’s mountain parks peak in hues in late October; however, color can be seen as early as September and throughout much of...
Fall is about to begin, but Atlanta weather still stuck in summer
Fall is about to begin, but Atlanta weather still stuck in summer

What’s going on, Mother Nature? Metro Atlanta is experiencing prolonged high temperatures, right ahead of the official start of fall. And that bugs Iris Rafi, a former Spelman College professor who now works part time in a library in Alpharetta. “I’ve been ready for fall since May,” said Rafi. “It’s hot and I don&rsquo...
‘Fashion Speaks on the Creek’ set for Sept. 30 
‘Fashion Speaks on the Creek’ set for Sept. 30 

Fashion Speaks on the Creek, a special needs fashion show, returns for its third year on Sunday, Sept. 30. Hosted by long-time Atlanta resident and local news anchor Karyn Greer, the show provides a night of joyous fun and a powerful message of inclusiveness and inspiration for some of the city’s most exceptional people.  Local stylist Margot...
Review: Gerstein, Spano bring the unexpected to ASO season opener
Review: Gerstein, Spano bring the unexpected to ASO season opener

Instead of taking yet another curtain call after his riveting performance of Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 2 Thursday night with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, guest pianist Kirill Gerstein briskly walked to the piano, a new piece of music in his hands. But this time, he was the one with a special guest. Conductor Robert Spano settled...
More Stories