The Epistolary Heart of An American Marriage

Tayari Jones’s latest novel uses intimate methods of storytelling to depict the dissolution of a relationship.

A stack of letters
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Reading someone else’s private letters feels almost as intrusive as spying on them through their living-room window. The personalized salutation, the handwriting quirks, and the inside jokes sprinkled throughout offer a glimpse at an interior world only the recipient is meant to see. There is no performance, no act put on for third-party observers. And while perusing just one letter between two people provides hints into their relationship, digging into a whole trove of letters sent over the course of several years can reveal intricacies that face-to-face interaction with the authors never would.

It is this sort of intimacy that Tayari Jones so searchingly explores in her new novel, An American Marriage, which follows the wrongful imprisonment of a young black man named Roy, and its impact on him and on his new wife Celestial. Jones shifts from the first-person narration provided by these two protagonists to letters they send each other while Roy is in prison. She then returns to their firsthand accounts, adding in a third narratorAndre, a childhood friend of Celestial’s and a college friend of Roy’s. The variation in these perspectives serves an important purpose: It offers up myriad means of understanding the novel’s complicated central relationship, and lets every character speak for themselves, giving each an opportunity to capture the reader’s allegiance.

Roy and Celestial have been married for a little more than a year when they’re introduced, and they’re madly in love, with a fire “still burning blue hot.” The couple is about to travel from their home in Atlanta (also Jones’s hometown, and the city in which she has grounded her three previous novels) to visit Roy’s parents in the fictional town of Eloe, Louisiana. It’s clear from the outset, with Roy and Celestial’s narration carrying the benefit of hindsight, that this trip will be the start of the pair’s troubles. To Roy, reflecting on the day of their departure, Celestial’s attempt to get them to stay behind and cancel the trip is “like watching a horror flick … When a spectral voice says, GET OUT, you should do it.” But, of course, Roy and Celestial don’t do it. They drive to Eloe, where they’ve decided to stay in a hotel rather than with Roy’s family, and where, ultimately, Roy is falsely accused of rape, subsequently arrested, tried in court, and sentenced to 12 years in prison.

This moment and those both immediately preceding and following it are relayed, in separate chapters, by Roy and Celestial, who feel a raft of emotions: There’s the confusion Roy feels about how this could have happened in the first place; the utter fear Celestial feels as the police storm their room and drag them into the parking lot; and the complete sense of loss both of them experience in the aftermath. (“Our house isn’t simply empty, our home has been emptied,” Celestial writes to Roy in her first letter to him in prison.) But rather than dwell on the moral implications of this violent and false imprisonment of a black man, Jones almost speeds through it; specifics of the arrest and the trial are provided in a matter of paragraphs. The terseness doesn’t make these details any less affecting, but does suggest them as essential context for the dissolving marriage at the novel’s core. Jones’s exploration is a breathtaking look at who and what can be complicit in that breakdown.

Marriages, of course—and the anxieties that abound within them—have been fodder for fiction for years. As Adelle Waldman wrote in 2013 about Jeffrey Eugenides’s aptly named The Marriage Plot, “As long as marriage and love and relationships have high stakes for us emotionally, they have the potential to offer rich subject material for novelists.” In recent months, books that range from memoir to “adultery narratives” have taken on the idea of troubled partnerships and how to deal with them, making it one of the more abundant themes in literature at this moment. With An American Marriage, Jones joins this conversation in a quietly powerful way. Her writing illuminates the bits and pieces of a marriage: those almost imperceptible moments that make it, break it, and forcefully tear it apart. Touching on familiar marital aspects (infidelity, stasis, competition), Jones suggests that it is the amalgamation of these things, not any particular isolated instance, that can indelibly fracture a relationship.

Jones’s strongest work in An American Marriage is in the missives she crafts between Celestial and Roy while he’s imprisoned. Though they make up less than a quarter of the novel, the letters nonetheless serve as the spine of this crumbling partnership. Everything the reader could want to know about the couple is laid out in these accounts. The sheer volume of backstory provided here amounts to literary whiplash: Old family secrets and integral plot developments are presented in a single sentence and not even fully digested by the reader until several more pages have gone by. It becomes head-spinning how Jones upends all expectations, flipping the reader’s perceptions and offering unexpected moments of clarity.

These letters mark the swift progression of time and house details that nudge the story forward, but perhaps most importantly they offer a snapshot of Celestial and Roy’s changing feelings, expressed directly to each other. At the outset, both are hopeful about the future and are trying hard to keep things as they were. Roy refers to his writings as “love letters”; Celestial writes down, word for word, their last conversation before his arrest so that “we can pick up where we left off.” But these affectionate remarks dwindle over time, and their bond begins to fray. It becomes unclear where the relationship stands—“Your husband (I think),” Roy signs one of his later letters—as his time in prison drags on. Without the need to perform their relationship to others, the truth of their fading affection becomes evident in their words. There is no need to hold back, and the animosity they begin to feel toward one another (for not visiting, for not writing, for simply not being what the other person wants or needs) is palpable. Their troubles lodge themselves in the reader’s mind, but it’s impossible to choose sides.

By the end of the epistolary section, Roy is released from prison seven years short of his original 12-year sentence. “I am coming home,” he writes to Celestial, but he fails to realize that home is a malleable concept, not a fixed place. The home he knew five years ago is basically nonexistent, no matter how hard he may try to will it back into existence. For the past three years, Celestial has been “playing house” with Andre, their old friend, and the second half of the novel sees her navigating the different lives she has been living with these two men. This latter section is dynamic, with conflicts coming to a head and silent tensions finally boiling over. The present collides with the past, as Celestial, Roy, and Andre all attempt to find harmony between the two—a seemingly insurmountable task for all of them. They’re trying to move past the pain and to locate that earlier intimacy—of newlywed bliss, childhood friendship, and those first letters—but they all have different ideas of where to find it.