Like most books that have been anointed by Oprah, An American Marriage has been a raging success–featuring prominently on bestseller lists and critic’s picks as well. It’s a timely story about Roy and Celestial, newlyweds who are torn apart a year and a half into their marriage when Roy is accused of a crime he did not commit and sent to prison. As time passes, both face challenges to their commitment to each other and react to Roy’s unjust treatment as a black man in America.
It also has some serious pluses and minuses going for it.
A lot of unfortunate incidents between African Americans and people in power (both police and politicians) have ignited conversation about how little we’ve progressed since the Civil Rights movement fifty years ago. An American Marriage taps into that issue with appropriate rage and disappointment, and it does so without feeling like a cheesy movie of the week.
With the advent of the #MeToo movement, it feels a little off to have a false rape accusation as the center of the story. No one doubts that the woman in question was raped, but her mistaken identification of Roy as the perpetrator feels tonally off. Indeed, that whole segment doesn’t make sense (while going for ice in a hotel, Roy goes into her room to try to help fix a plumbing issue. Why?).
Pro: Complex Characters in a Real Ethical Quandary
Every character in An American Marriage is given ample opportunity to explain their side of the story to the reader (except the rape victim, who isn’t even a character). I can perfectly imagine a book club setting where people get into genuine debates about who is right and who is wrong in this story. There are no easy answers and there’s plenty of room to make cases for multiple points of view.
Con: Contorted Plotpoints to Further the Ethical Dilemmas
Unfortunately, Jones furthers a lot of that debate by having the plot contort in ways that don’t feel organic. Celestial is the character who comes off the worst in my reading of this book because literally every confrontation could have been helped with honest conversation and empathy, and her passive aggressive selfishness creates a giant mess that might work in terms of drama, but leaves her without much dignity by the end (again, in my reading of the book).
In the end, the handling of Celestial constantly took me out of the book and made me roll my eyes. Everything that happens in this book depends on her being indecisive and avoiding confrontation. How can you take her seriously? It also made it very difficult for me to have any empathy for her as a character–and this book depends on you seeing all sides of the story. So even though this is a good, well-reasoned book, I frequently found myself stuck at arm’s length from it.