An American Marriage
Algonquin, Feb 2018
A woman doesn’t always have a choice, not in a meaningful way. Sometimes there is a debt that must be paid, a comfort that she is obliged to provide, a safe passage that must be secured. Everyone of us has lain down for a reason that was not love.”
― Tayari Jones, An American Marriage
Almost without exception, uber-popular novels disappoint me. An American Marriage kicked up so much pre-pub fuss I could see the dust swirling on the horizon as it galloped for town. Each review more laudatory than the last, by the time it hit the shelves I had to wear goggles to keep out the flying debris. When it won the Women’s Prize for Fiction, that was the final straw.
Reader, I caved.
And I wasn’t blown away.
I’ve never differed from my favorite critic before. I do mean never. Ron Charles from The Washington Post is my go-to, the reviewer I trust not to kiss author ass when the rest of the world has puckered up. He praised An American Marriage. That is no small thing.
His opinions are the gospel according to St. Ron:
“Compelling . . . spun with tender patience by Jones, who cradles each of these characters in a story that pulls our sympathies in different directions. She never ignores their flaws, their perfectly human tendency toward self-justification, but she also captures their longing to be kind, to be just, to somehow behave well despite the contradictory desires of the heart.”
—Ron Charles, Washington Post
There’s a formula to hitting that blockbuster sweet spot, a tipping point at which all the review outlets are throwing out exclamation points and trite phrases like a BOGO sale. An American Marriage hit that mark. That’s why I steered clear as long as I did.
At the outset, I loved the book. Lyrically written and initially gripping, it sucked me right in. I thought to myself, here’s the rare exception to my rule about popular books. Beginning on the Friday of a long weekend I knew had to myself, since The Well-Beloved was otherwise engaged, I saw ahead of me 48 hours of reading bliss that didn’t quite materialize.
If you haven’t read it, the book is about a young couple struggling to hold their marriage together after the husband has been wrongfully jailed for assault. Celestial and Roy are still adjusting to married life when he’s convicted and sentenced to prison. Until his appeals are exhausted, the hope he’ll be freed is enough to maintain the bond. Once that’s lost, a yawning gulf opens, leaving just enough room for Andre, the friend who’s loved Celestial from childhood, to declare himself. The two fall in love.
When new evidence proves Roy’s innocence, he’s set free. Life being life, the struggle to right the balance is fraught. I won’t tell you how it ends, but you can imagine the hellish ride. There are a few well-executed subplots, but I won’t go into those. This isn’t a proper review.
A couple things stand between me and loving this book. First, what Ron Charles praises as “tender patience” was, to me, pacing that slowed to a crawl. Somewhere around halfway I put the book down. Wanting to know how it ended, but not thrilled with the knowledge that meant I’d have to finish reading it, I thought about googling for spoilers. I didn’t, deciding instead to plow through.
It’s just not tight enough. I love taut writing, extremely spare prose, and it’s the writer’s job to keep me gripped. Lyricism has its place, but Jones is an over-writer. She relies far too heavily on similes, and that grates. Her penchant for ending paragraphs with a flowery flourish yanked me out of the tale. This was the second stumbling block.
It was like trying to read attached to a bungee cord.
There’s much to admire in the book. For me, the drawbacks prevented me from falling in love. If there’s an upside, at least my disappointment with popular books remains unsullied.
Still, Ron Charles. Now that hurts. Not loving the book is one thing. The discomfort of disagreeing with The Critic is quite another.
I’m going to lick my wounds. I may be a while.