RAD Book Club review: An American Marriage

RAD Book Club’s first book of Series 5 was An American Marriage by American writer Tayari Jones. Published in 2018, Jones’ fourth novel narrates the fortunes of an African-American couple after the husband’s arrest for a crime he did not commit and the effect that his time in prison has on their marriage once he is released. Fourteen of us met for a varied and impassioned discussion about a book that we felt was relevant and important, although not very well written.

Many of us enjoyed how the story was presented: we hear the voices of the main characters, Roy, Celestial and André, and others, in dialogue and in monologue. We also read the letters Roy and Celestial sent to each other while Roy is in prison. This strategy provided an avenue for different perspectives on the same reality to be expressed and also helped with the development of the characters throughout the novel. A few people would have liked for the chapter including the letters to have lasted a bit longer, as it allowed them to explore an interesting aspect of their personalities whilst others struggled to find them engaging at all.

Whilst the novel’s plot is triggered by the sad, shocking reality that many black men in the south of the USA have to endure, most of the group appreciated that the author focused on the effects which wrong accusations and unjust incarceration have in personal relationships and family life, rather than on the legal processes. Many also felt that the portrayal of the realities of marriage in that particular context were dealt with in a realistic manner. Some enjoyed the opportunity to sympathise with what the characters might have felt and to engage with a reality which is not exposed often enough. In connection with this, many liked that the book did not make an effort to impose a happy ending, which added to the general impression of plausibility.

For some, all this made the book easy to read, the plot engaging, and the characters somehow appealing, in spite of their flaws and imperfections. The novel followed a well-paced rhythm, the situations and personal relations made it a page-turner, and the conclusion of the book was realistic.

But the book also had its weaknesses. Several people found that some characters and dramatic situations were clichéd and a bit predictable. A few found that their failure to feel any sense of endearment towards any of the characters, who we termed unlikeable and insensitive, meant that they were unable to care what happened to them. Some also thought the protagonists were not given distinguishable voices which resulted in lifeless characters and their actions often felt contrived in order to manoeuvre the plot. As a result, some found the plot to be weak and unconvincing. Among other features we said we didn’t like were the importance and place given to Celeste’s dolls (despite their symbolic role), the absence of temporality markers within the narrative, the presence of some secondary characters, and the style and language used throughout the book.

As you can see, opinion was divided on this novel and this was reflected in our group score of 5.5 out of 10.

Book Club will meet again on Tuesday 5 November 2019 at the usual time of 1-2 in the Library to discuss the recent work by social historian Hallie Rubenhold The Five: The Untold Lives of the Women Killed by Jack the Ripper, an overdue attempt to reclaim the previously unresearched history of these women.