A few months back, when I saw that Tayari Jones was releasing a new novel in February, I knew it was going to be a great Black History Month—and I hightailed it over to Amazon to pre-order my copy. I had read her three previous novels, and I met her when she came to Spelman (while I was a student) to discuss her novel Silver Sparrow; the copy she signed for me that day is one of the most treasured items in my library.
The premise of the novel, An American Marriage, is simple, as Jones’ stories tend to be. This is the story of a young couple and how they react individually and collectively to the wrongful conviction (an sentence of 12 years in prison) of the husband for a crime he did not commit.
The genius of a great novel is in its ability to make us understand the choices and feelings of the characters, even where we would choose or feel differently; the heart of a great novel is its ability to make us, by the end of its time in our lives, question whether we truly ever knew how we would choose or feel in the place of the characters.
After having read the novel, I am left with many impressions. The novel is both genius and full of heart based on the above definitions. There are many things right, but still a few things (that felt) wrong as the novel moves to its finish.
The most important “wrong” that left me unsettled with the characters and my view of them by the end of the novel was that I felt I never got a chance to see their love. We meet the couple, we see them suffer through awkwardness of misunderstandings and misalignment with family, we even see them fight, but when do we get to see them love? The reader gets an in-depth look at the foundation of friendship and eventual love between the wife and her childhood best friend, but doesn’t get a similar look at the foundation of the love she supposedly shares with the man she married. Or maybe, that’s the point? Maybe part of the obscurity of An American Marriage is that there was never enough to show, as unfortunately is the case in many American marriages.
From the first mention of the wife’s best friend, I know the inevitable (no woman with good sense would call a male friend about a fight with her husband unless…). I can’t decide if the point of the novel is that this was always an inevitability that the only the characters themselves couldn’t bring themselves to see, or if there was actually something real and strong at the foundation of An American Marriage that just disintegrated under the circumstances rather than gave way to fate.
But then again, to read a novel is to have the benefit of the beginning in light of the end.
These musings aren’t to take away from what Jones has done here; though the characters themselves sometimes seem too compelled by the plot rather than the other way around, Jones is masterful at forcing the reader to connect with each choice that each character makes, each stance they must take, each bond they must break—or forge. Because Jones makes us want to understand rather than judge, the ending seems right, and it doesn’t leave the feeling that everything that came before was in vain. Rather, it reminds me of the old folk saying that some people come into your life just for a season. The season we see is Autumn, but the leaves have to fall for there to be a bloom.