I’m going to be honest: I never intended to read this book. I have a terrible case of reverse snobbery that causes me to inwardly sniff in distain at any book presented by Oprah or Reese Witherspoon or any other celebrity as exceptionally worth reading. However, since I’m aware of this tendency within myself, I’m making an effort to not write something off just because it has an Oprah’s Book Club sticker on the front, though I’ll never be a reader that decides to pick up a book based on the same sticker. I’m very glad I made myself look past its popularity and pick it up, because An American Marriage gutted me. The characters it portrays are stunningly, viscerally real. And the situation in which they find themselves is heartbreakingly, infuriatingly believable.
“You can never really unlove somebody. Maybe it changes shape, but it’s there.”
What would you do if, as newlyweds, you and your spouse found yourselves separated by prison walls for a crime that you (or said spouse) did not commit? Even if you knew for a fact that the accused was wholly innocent of the charge, would you be willing to put your life on hold and wait for them? Could such a young marriage shoulder such a difficult burden? That’s the situation in which Roy and Celestial find themselves. What happens from there I’ll leave you to discover should you read the book, but it was painful to witness. No one was really in the wrong here. And everyone was. It was just a brutal twist of fate that no one could have seen coming.
“Sometimes when you like where you end up, you don’t care how you got there.”
This was a story brilliantly well told. The writing was phenomenal, not in a way that made you stop and admire a sentence, but in a way that allowed you to see every line of anguish on someone’s face and hear the hurt in the lines of their letters. Which is another thing I loved about this book. I’m a sucker for epistolary novels, and that format dominated a large chunk of the narrative. It was an incredibly successful usage of letters, and allowed us to get both sides of the marriage story while still never revealing everything. During this section we saw only what the letter writers wanted us and each other to know. Jones has such power behind her words, and the raw emotion in these pages was almost too much at times; I felt like I was invading this private world that I had no right to see. Very rarely have characters seemed so real to me that I felt like a voyeur. I was also completely drawn in by the setting. I’ll always have a soft spot for any book that takes place in the American South, but the vast majority of the novel took this a step further by residing in my home state of Louisiana. How could this story not resonate with me?
“But home isn’t where you land; home is where you launch. You can’t pick your home any more than you can choose your family. In poker, you get five cards. Three of them you can swap out, but two are yours to keep: family and native land.”
An American Marriage is a novel that is undoubtedly worthy of its popularity. It has earned every accolade it has received, and I’m so glad I read it. It broke my heart in the best way, and I can see myself revisiting this story in the years to come.