A couple years ago, Melinda and I visited a state prison in Georgia as part of our foundation’s work on U.S. poverty. I’d never been to a prison before, and it was an eye-opening experience.
The most memorable part was the discussion we had with some of the inmates about transitioning back into society. Although most were looking forward to leaving prison behind, some were clearly anxious about it. One man told us he was scared to re-enter society after so many years behind bars. Another mentioned that it felt like he was a car about to be dropped into the middle of a racetrack where the other cars are already going 200 miles per hour.
I couldn’t help but think about that conversation when I was reading An American Marriage by Tayari Jones. Although it’s fictional, the story is about the question at the heart of the anxiety Melinda and I saw that day: how do you rebuild your life after prison?
Our daughter Jenn recommended that we read this deeply moving story about how one incident of injustice reshapes the lives of a black couple in the South and eventually dooms their relationship. Roy and Celestial are newlyweds living in Atlanta. They seemed to have it all: good careers, a decent house, and a lot of love for one another (although their marriage wasn’t perfect).
That all changes when Roy gets falsely accused of rape and sentenced to 12 years in prison. Despite how radically this event changes their lives, Jones doesn’t spend much time on it. She devotes only five pages to Roy’s arrest and trial. Her message is clear: Roy is innocent, Celestial knows it, and neither fact matters. He’s caught up in the system regardless.
What Jones is more interested in is how incarceration changes relationships. About half of the book is letters exchanged between Roy and Celestial while he’s locked up. Although they start out sweetly, the letters become more tense as time goes on. Eventually, Celestial stops writing to Roy altogether. By the time he gets released from prison seven years early, she’s moved on. (I promise this isn’t a spoiler. It’s in the book’s jacket description!)
There’s this mythical notion that you’ll wait forever for the person you love. Penelope from the Odyssey is the classic example—she fights off potential suitors for 20 years waiting for her husband, Odysseus, to return from war.
It’s a romantic idea, but is it realistic? Jones doesn’t seem to think so. We all like to imagine we’d be Penelope in that situation, but I suspect many would end up like Celestial instead. She writes to Roy, “You may feel like you’re carrying a burden, but I shoulder a load as well.” Later, she says, “A marriage is more than your heart, it’s your life. And we are not sharing ours.”
The fact that their marriage didn’t have a fairytale ending felt realistic. Roy’s unjust incarceration—and the separation it caused—pushed on the seams that already existed in their relationship, and eventually those seams broke. Despite her decision to leave him, Celestial is a sympathetic character. You understand why she made her choice.
An American Marriage is fundamentally a story about how incarceration hurts more than just the person locked up. It’s also a reminder of how draconian our criminal justice system can be—especially for black men like Roy. Once you get sucked into that system, you’re marked for life. Everything you were or had can disappear while you’re in prison.
In a letter to his lawyer, Roy writes about how things have been difficult for Celestial but even more difficult for him. “I try to see her side of things, but it’s hard to weep for anyone who is out in the world living their dream,” he says.
Jones is such a good writer that you can’t help but empathize with Roy and Celestial. Both have been put into a super-difficult position. I obviously haven’t experienced what they go through, but the characters—and their reactions to the situation—ring true to me.
I wouldn’t say An American Marriage is a light, easy read, but it’s so well-written that you’ll find yourself sucked into it despite the heavy subject matter. If you’re looking for something thought-provoking to read this winter, you should add this one to your list.