Review: An American Marriage, Tayari Jones

I’m not often so organised in my reading and rarely have I read a prize winner so quickly after it received a prize. But a short trip to Prague/Dresden this month meant that I plenty of opportunity to get stuck into something new, and Tayari Jones’ An American Marriage was my first pick.

The way with prize-winning books is that you always hear a lot about them before you start reading, and I find that that can often taint your ideas about the book before you’ve even started. While I enjoyed An American Marriage, I’m afraid to say that I wasn’t completely blown away by it like I’d hoped I’d be, and I wonder if my expectations were maybe set a little too high because of all the buzz I had heard about it.

Celestial and Roy are interesting, unique characters, who kept surprising me up until the last page. I love it when first-person narrative conceals certain things about a character, and lulls you into a false sense of security about who they are and what they’re capable of. I can’t, however, say that I particularly liked the couple, or that I was rooting for them – separately or together. I mostly found myself questioning their life decisions, and wondering why some parts of the narrative seemed rush, and other parts felt like it went on for far too long. It meant I never had a full sense of them as people, and I subsequently felt disconnected, and slightly ambivalent, about them and their fates.

The choice to include letters within the text was a great idea which really kept the narrative both moving forward and still at the same time. I had a problem with how formal some of the letters were though, and kept wondering would you really write to your spouse in that tone? I was also often confused by the way characters reacted or responded to each other, which took me out of the book and made me feel sometimes annoyed by their decisions.

On the other hand, there was something almost tragically and inevitably Shakesperian about the way the characters moved around each other, and how the love triangle between Celestial, Roy and Andre progressed. I thought Roy’s reaction to coming out of prison after being wrongfully convicted for so long was upsetting, and really enjoyed how Jones pushed him to almost commit the crime he had spent time for. It’s a good question to pose about the couple – what would you do in either of their positions? Do you get to be the victim? Do you get to move on? Jones explored these ideas with eloquence and didn’t shy away from the truth about being black in America. There were bits that made me want to tear my hair out for the sheer injustice of it all, and in many places it felt like a story that was all too real for just how unbelievable it was.

I’m very interested in hearing what other readers thought about the book. Am I way off base in my complaints? Am I missing something? Probably. But when a book fails to spark that light within you, sometimes there’s no going back and all you can do is hope to find that connection with the next one.

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