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.