Day 1268: Literary Wives! An American Marriage

Cover for An American MarriageToday is another review for the Literary Wives blogging club, in which we discuss the depiction of wives in fiction. If you have read the book, please participate by leaving comments on any of our blogs. Be sure to read the reviews and comments of the other wives!

Emily of The Bookshelf of Emily J.
Eva of Paperback Princess
Lynn of Smoke and Mirrors
Naomi of Consumed By Ink

Celestial and Roy are a young African-American couple on their way up to a life of success. Married only a year and a half, they have traveled from Atlanta to Roy’s childhood home in small-town Louisiana to visit Roy’s parents. After an argument earlier in the evening, they are yanked out of bed in their motel room, and Roy is accused of raping a woman whom he earlier assisted with her things.

Although innocent, Roy is found guilty and sentenced to 12 years in jail. The jail sentence is more of a MacGuffin in this novel, though. The bulk of the novel is about what happens to their marriage after his incarceration.

It’s hard for me to evaluate this novel. On the one hand, it’s certainly topical and about an important issue, but this novel is really not about the injustice.

So, to look at it as I would any other novel, I have to say that I didn’t buy these characters or their interactions. I didn’t like Roy, and although I felt sorry for him, I liked him less as the novel went on. At first, he’s too much of an operator, and I’m not sure what Celestial sees in him.

The other two important characters, Celestial and Andre, are more enigmatic. Although Celestial has some narrative sections, we don’t really know how she feels about things. She is an artist who makes dolls and gets more involved in her career as the novel progresses. At first, she seems to be a woman who doesn’t take any guff from men, but she takes plenty from Roy in terms of his philandering. Andre has a few sections as narrator, but he seems to have no discernible personality.

I found the letters section particularly annoying. I didn’t ring true for me at all. I didn’t think the characters would write to each other like that or say the things they did.

Most of the way through the novel I felt as if the characters were just being put through their paces for the sake of the plot. This particularly applies to the end, when Roy suddenly gets released from jail for no reason that makes sense or is adequately explained. Again, the MacGuffin. Although I did get involved in the novel, it was almost against my will.

What does this book say about wives or the experience of being a wife?

Since the characters spend most of the novel apart, this is a difficult question to answer. Certainly, their marriage does not seem to have a firm foundation. Although Roy claims they are happy at the beginning of the novel, we don’t really know this from Celestial. We do know that Roy has cheated on her and is minimizing this behavior to himself, but we don’t know how she feels about it.

Spoilers ahead . . .

Literary Wives logoWhen Roy gets out of jail, his behavior is beyond belief. First, he has sex with the first woman he sees, but then he returns to Atlanta expecting to resume his marriage even though he hasn’t heard from Celestial in two years. The climactic scene where he demands another chance and her reaction to it just seems ridiculously over the top, and I couldn’t believe it when she agrees. The characters’ whole relationship just doesn’t ring true. One thing I can say is that for Roy, being a wife seems to be more like being a possession.  For Celestial, again, I’m not sure what she gets out of marriage.

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14 thoughts on “Day 1268: Literary Wives! An American Marriage

  1. Naomi October 1, 2018 / 10:37 am

    Ha! The letters are what got me into the novel! I did have trouble with getting into it before that point.
    I agree that the incarceration was not the main drive of the novel, but thought it was good that the author could get that into her book without it being serious and depressing. I think a lot of people are reading this book that might not otherwise want to read something darker.

    I had a hard time, too, answering our question. I could only really go by Roy and Olive’s marriage, and what Celestial thinks marriage should look like. The whole scenario has so many variables in it!

    • whatmeread October 1, 2018 / 2:53 pm

      That’s interesting, because the letters were the first thing to put me off. Before that, I was sort of into the book, but I found the letters absolutely unconvincing. I couldn’t imagine anyone writing to each other the things they wrote. I did think that the book did a good job of examining the different feelings of the characters. I just didn’t like Roy at all. Did you think you got a good idea of what marriage was supposed to be from Celestial, other than the negative that it wasn’t what her marriage was?

      • Naomi October 2, 2018 / 8:49 am

        I didn’t like Roy a lot, but I didn’t dislike him either. I could say the same for Celestial for different reasons.
        I got a better idea of marriage from what Celestial and Roy did *not* have. And a better idea of it from Big Roy and Olive. I don’t think anyone’s experience of being a wife in this book was ideal, but that’s probably a realistic reflection of how it really is. I wonder how many people in the world have an ideal marriage??? Now I want to know! 😉

      • whatmeread October 2, 2018 / 9:15 am

        Probably not many. Yes, I don’t know if I disliked Celestial so much as thought she didn’t seem to have much of personality.

      • Naomi October 2, 2018 / 10:01 am

        Maybe she was too young to even know who she was yet. And then all this was dumped on her!

      • whatmeread October 2, 2018 / 2:29 pm

        I don’t know. Se seemed fairly sophisticated to me.

  2. buriedinprint October 1, 2018 / 3:47 pm

    I can see where, if the relationship didn’t ring true, one just wouldn’t enjoy this novel. That wasn’t my experience, and I also thought the use of the letters was realistic because under those circumstances people would have to change: you’d have to find new ways to communicate and Roy, in particular, would have hours and hours to sit and write out his thoughts. Maybe you will enjoy the next selection more!

    • whatmeread October 1, 2018 / 8:15 pm

      I hope so. I felt that the letters said certain things not because the characters would have but because the plot needed to go forward.

  3. The Paperback Princess October 1, 2018 / 4:04 pm

    I don’t usually like letters in novels at all but I thought they worked in this one!

    We felt completely differently about this novel but I will completely agree that I found it difficult to answer our question. And you’re definitely not wrong about Roy’s behaviour when he gets out of prison!

    • whatmeread October 1, 2018 / 8:16 pm

      I’m glad someone agrees with me about something! 😉

  4. Emily J. October 1, 2018 / 7:51 pm

    Oh wow. You REALLY didn’t like this as much as I did! 🙂 I totally agree with you on Roy. He was super annoying, and yes, his behavior after getting out was extremely strange. Have you noticed how novels sometimes have a denouement that is wacky and crazy? I’m not sure why novelists do it. I’m sure there’s a reason. (I should ask my creative writing colleagues.) I mean, it makes the story memorable and gives a realistic story some extravagance. I just read White Noise by Don DeLillo, and there’s a similar dramatic series of events at the end that seem to function to bring home the stress of the situation on the characters. Perhaps Jones was doing the same with Roy. I mean, none of us can technically comprehend what he was going through (or how we would act in a similar situation, unless it actually happens to us), so his actions become fantastical but also somewhat believable to me, as a white woman who has never been arrested and who doesn’t know what its like. I don’t know! These are just some ramblings. Thanks for making me think more about it!

    • whatmeread October 1, 2018 / 8:19 pm

      Yes, what were we supposed to think about that? While alleging he loves his wife, he immediately goes to bed with another woman and then runs off to berate his wife for her lack of fidelity and for not giving him a chance. Some might say her duty was to wait for him, but she obviously didn’t see it like that. I think his absence made her realize the problems in her marriage. You had to feel some sympathy with him, but what did he expect when he hadn’t heard from her in years?

  5. Lynn @ Smoke & Mirrors October 2, 2018 / 11:52 am

    Interestingly, what you call a ‘MacGuffin’ I view as a ‘catalyst’. I admired Jones’ ability to go beyond the wrongful conviction to depict the challenges in the aftermath of release from incarceration. Much as Roxane Gay went beyond the kidnapping and imprisonment of her protagonist to deal with the aftermath of her release/escape in An Untamed State. Also, Wally Lamb went beyond the Columbine shooting to depict the aftermath for one of the (fictional) peripheral victims in The Hour I First Believed. I believe it is in the aftermath of traumatic events that the real damage is experienced and visible… I thought Roy was released due to a federal court finally overturning his wrongful conviction. (I could well be misremembering…) I would agree that Roy seemed to have what I consider to be that ‘typical male’ interpretation of marriage in that he considered a wife to be his possession to a great degree. I hadn’t considered that, but I do agree. I love epistolary novels (The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society comes to mind…) and I always think it is interesting what we can/will reveal to someone in a written format vs. face-to-face. So that didn’t bother me. Here’s to Shreve’s The Stars Are Fire and hopefully a much more enjoyable reading experience for you!

    • whatmeread October 2, 2018 / 2:32 pm

      I like epistolary novels all right if the letters seem to accord well with the people’s personalities. I just thought these letters were unconvincing. Also, the law wouldn’t have had any way of knowing Roy’s was a wrongful conviction, since it was based on a witness’s wrong identification, but they said it was “prosecutorial misconduct,” and I didn’t feel that there was anything the prosecution could have done that was misconduct. That’s for when you hide evidence or an exculpatory witness or something like that. The explanation was plainly just thrown in there to get him out of jail with no real understanding or care about what the case was about.

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