Posts filtered by tag: books

Prison Bells

by SoupWanderer /


I'll come out honestly and say that I really don't think Tayari Jones's An American Marriage lives up to the hype. I have no clue why Oprah picked it for her book club, nor why it received such effusive praise from outlets such as The New York Times and The Atlantic. Don't get me wrong, it is incredibly well written. The author is skilled at writing and the prose is vivid and beautiful. But for approximately ⅔ of the book, we are merely flicking through a plot that is grounded in horrific and timely circumstances, but that has a strange emptiness of soul. It is like looking at one of Celestial's poupees, which are perfectly adorable and artistic, but something is ever so slightly off.

Deciding you don't like a book is always a tricky situation, especially when it is being widely praised as "Brilliant and heartbreaking..." (USA Today) and "Epic... Transcendent... Triumphant..." (Elle). It's not really heartbreaking as it is frustrating, and it's not really triumphant. Where are these book reviewers getting their adjectives from?

Part of what makes the book simultaneously easy to flick through and hard to read is that two of the three narrators are not really likable nor engaging characters. Nearly every time I read anything by Andre, whose defining characteristic is being "sweet" (which apparently stands in place of any serious personality), my eyes glazed over and I just flicked for plot. Celestial is more real but difficult to sympathize with. My biggest problem with Celestial is that she is selfish, but doesn't commit to what she's selfish about! Since her relationship with her husband Roy is the most closely explored, we best understand why she ultimately ends their relationship after he is wrongfully imprisoned for half a decade, because as she says, "A marriage is more than your heart, it's your life. And we are not sharing ours". That I resonate with, that made sense to me. But instead of proceeding with a divorce, Celestial continues her relationship with Andre while keeping Roy in limbo. That makes no sense, and it makes the "love triangle" in this book feel seriously contrived. Seriously, this relationship is not a love triangle - it's more like a love anglerfish, where the union of Celestial and Andre is solid and whole, like a female anglerfish, while Roy is basically the tiny male anglerfish, desperately trying to hang on while withering away.

What makes a book good or bad? Is it just because the characters are likable or unlikable? Because we don't like where the plot ends up? Of course not - enjoyment is subjective, but quality is objective. I'll give you one thing that I consider a pretty big knock against the potential of the book - Tayari Jones spent one whole year researching America's prison industrial system, and it barely makes it into the book. She even acknowledges it herself in the post-book essay. And in general, that's probably where the book fails the most. It has lofty aspirations to talk about the prison system, class inequality, intergenerational trauma, and love. But it fails at seriously examining any of those things, most disappointingly of all, love! Making your characters talk about love with embroidered sentences does not convince me that they love each other. Half of the time that I read about Roy and Celestial say that they loved each other, I felt that they were trying to convince themselves and me, which doesn't make for a very strong case. Celestial seems self-aware of this towards the end; Roy, not so much. For me, that's disappointing. They're both far more caught up in their own aspirations to live a bourgeois life, to buy nicer houses and scale up their doll store. And maybe that is the ultimate takeaway from this book, which is about many things but is ultimately supposed to be about love. Maybe the ultimate takeaway is that to chase being a part of the bourgeoisie under capitalism requires you to be atomistic, and requires you to forsake the idea of loving someone unless all circumstances conveniently line up. If you want to start your career as an artist who embroiders Swarovski crystals on dolls, can you really afford to wait for a husband who's in jail, no matter how wrongfully he was convicted? Doesn't it make sense that you have to erase his existence to preserve your reputation as an artist extraordinaire, not the perpetual wife of a prisoner?

The book isn't all bad - one of the things I cherish the most is reading about the true love between Roy's working-class parents, Big Roy and Olive. If you decide to read this book, I recommend you really appreciate the sections about them. They teach us that love is not about convenience - it's about rolling with the punches of someone else's decisions and choosing to live your life alongside them, loving them so deeply that when they pass, a piece of you goes into the earth with them. It is something precious, that no Swarovski crystal nor Mercedes Benz can ever replace.

#books #writing