“An American Marriage” is a story about resilience in the face of conflicting emotions and frustrated expectations. An American Marriage is about rising above racial inequity and social injustice. And finally, An American Marriage is about coincidence and how life’s twists and turns are sometimes beyond our control.
The novel starts with an introduction to Roy and his reflections on his wife Celestial and their life together. Roy grew up in Eloe, Louisiana, the son of Olive and big Roy Hamilton. Roy’s full name is Roy Othaniel Hamilton. Olive had Roy when she was 16 years old. Olive was strong willed and worked at a local grocery. Big Roy worked at a sporting goods store and was a handyman in his spare time. The family made do but was not wealthy.
Celestial, on the other hand, came from a wealthy Atlanta family and as a wedding gift, her parents gave Roy and Celestial a house in Atlanta. Roy and Celestial met when Roy was a student at Morehouse and Celestial was a student at Spelman. Roy was a textbook salesman and Celestial an artist, creating dolls which sold for as much as $5000 a piece. Life was good for the couple, if not perfect because of Roy’s intermittent philandering.
After about a year and a half of marriage, Roy and Celestial decide to visit Roy’s parents in Eloe. The visit is not comfortable due to the tension between Celestial and Olive and in anticipation of that tension, Roy arranged for them to stay in a local motel, the Piney Woods Inn. At the Inn, Roy tells Celestial that Big Roy is not his biological father and she is furious that he had not told her sooner. He walks around the Inn while Celestial cools off, and he meets an older woman with an arm in a sling, whom he helps with some issues in her room. In the meantime, Celestial calls her friend Andre to vent.
When Roy returns to the room all has been forgiven and they spend a romantic evening together. Unfortunately, in the middle of the night the police arrive and arrest Roy for rape—an accusation from the woman he had helped earlier in the evening. He is convicted and sentenced to 12 years. This part of the story is told by Celestial and Roy in alternating chapters.
While Roy is in prison, Celestial and Roy write letters back and forth. Through these letters we learn that Roy’s cell mate is an older career criminal named Walter Jenkins, who protects Roy while he is there. There are appeals and ultimately the conviction is thrown out, but not until Roy has spent 5 years in prison.
A lot happens during that five years, and when Roy is released Celestial has moved on with Andre. Roy, as you can imagine, is not happy and there are some tussles, but ultimately everyone gets on with their lives in different ways.
At one point in the book, looking back on everything, Celestial observes that “Much of life is timing and circumstance…But how you feel love and understand love are two different things…Human emotion is beyond comprehension and smooth and uninterrupted like an orb made of blown glass.”
My initial reaction to the book was that it was too simplistic and light. However, by the end I appreciated the depth of thought and insight, and the forgiving approach to a truly tragic event. Rather than ending with anger and frustration, the novel has a sort of hopefulness to it that could not have been easy to conceive. The book is worth a read and can be reserved at the Cuyahoga County Public Library by clicking here.