‘An American Marriage’
After the excitement of finding Cynthia Bond’s Ruby, I suspended my judgmental aversion of Oprah’s book club picks and on a whim decided to give another Oprah Book Club 2.0 selections a try. I ordered the book from the public library as soon as Oprah announced it (Sometime in February I think.) and I had actually forgotten I had requested it when finally my turn came in the cue to read it. The latest Oprah Book Club selections are hot items. This is the fourth book by Tayari Jones, it was introduced by Oprah cryptically leading to some trepidation on my part.
What is An American marriage? I remember my grandmother telling me about the War Brides that married American Soldiers who were stationed in Australia during World War II. Sent to defend Australia from the Japanese while the Australian troops fought on the front-lines in Europe against the Nazis, they found themselves with little competition for the attentions of single Australian women. As many of those young lovers found, their romantic tales often turned to heartache as the Australian women found themselves unaccustomed to living in America. I often thought of these women during my own marriage and continue to do so in my life here. The differences in culture parallel the differences in people. I was not surprised to find An American Marriage to be a tale of complication, trauma, heartache and messy interpersonal connections. Obligation and loyalty are central themes. Obligations of men to women and of women to men, men to each other, fathers to children and everyone to innocent people caught up in the travesty of the American prison system.
An American Marriage reveals the complications of being black and accused of a crime in America. It is told through the story of an innocent incarcerated man’s marriage as it unfolds through short chapters each told from the perspective of various characters. Interspersed is a series of letters written primarily between the incarcerated husband and his wife. As an avid letter writer, I enjoyed reading these sections. It felt both familiar and exhilarating, it isn’t often one gets to read letters in succession from both sides. It felt intimate to read the personal revelations and satisfying like a Netflix binge watching session. A few simplistic writing techniques marred the novel in places where I felt I was too often told details instead of being shown. I am not a fan of long descriptions of physical characteristics. Unless it is interesting or relevant to the tale, I rarely feel the need to know what a character’s physical attributes are. I want to imagine them myself eeked out of my mind as I become familiar with the characters ways. The short chapters and letters make this a wonderfully quick read I easily digested in a few hours.
The interactions and expectations articulated in the book sometimes upset me. I couldn’t help sense the implicit assumptions of ownership over the wife that festered my own American marriage and seems plain in so many more I have witnessed irrespective of gender. Partly for this reason I was drawn particularly to the Thanksgiving scene that included a speech made by partner of the Wife’s Uncle. Sylvia put words to the underlying dynamics that placed the women particularly in catch 22 situations attempting to mediate between independence and relationships, she called out the problem as sometimes only an outsider can.
Although personally familiar with some of the themes in these sad ways, I was divided from the personal experience of an overly privileged life, black existence, an American upbringing, and thankfully incarceration. As depressing and dark as the tale is it doesn’t have the Southern Gothic elements that made Ruby such an emotional slug to read but instead lightly threaded over the details that veil the reality of desperation and brutality present in prison life and the pitfalls of being naive in the prison setting while attempting to remain hold of your own humanity.