Book Discussion: An American Marriage (Spoiler Free-Ish)

Let me begin by acknowledging that this book is beautifully written and that Oprah selected it as her first book club pick of 2018. So now we’re agreed that it’s well-written and that a lot of people are going to enjoy it, right? Great. Now we can jump into the multitude of reasons I didn’t like it and why I would recommend avoiding it if you don’t want to (a) hate the world and (b) be miserable every time you pick it up. Is that just me being dramatic? Well, maybe, but it’s how I felt and it took me almost two days and three romance novels to pull myself out of it. But alright, let’s go.

The premise of this book lets you know that it’s going to be pretty difficult so there’s reason to be like, “Jenica, why did you pick it up then?” And the answer is two-fold: One, I am a lawyer and examining the ways in which the criminal justice system fails people is of interest to me. Two, I fell for both the cover and the hype. Shame on me. But seriously, having read this book, this cover is even better than I realized so thank you, Dani from Dani’s Bookshelf, for pointing that one detail out to me.

Anyway, if you’ve missed the hype and therefore don’t know what this book is about, it’s about Roy and Celestial, a couple that’s been married for about a year and a half when Roy is wrongfully accused of a crime he didn’t commit and winds up with a prison sentence of 12 years. He gets out early because of a federal habeas corpus proceeding and the entire legal concept is very minimal. Anyway, this basically tells the story of Roy and Celestial’s marriage and Celestial’s relationship with her best friend since childhood, Andre or Dre. The book is told from all three perspectives.

Now we’re going to break my complaints down into three issues so I’ll hopefully be able to keep this concise and from sounding too much like a rant. We’ll see how that goes.

Issue #1: Roy’s Incarceration

The book seems to be written in modern times and (minor spoiler ahead) Roy was accused of committing a STRANGER rape, which was reported to the police the same night it occurred. Now, Roy definitely could have been arrested for this crime and we could have easily just blamed racism for his arrest, but (a) there’s virtually zero chance there wasn’t a rape kit done considering this old lady reported the crime to the police immediately and (b) assuming there was a rape kit done, Roy’s DNA would obviously not have matched it. So, you have a hole in your logic, solution: explain that the dude who actually committed a crime was wearing a condom and left behind no physical evidence. It’s an easy enough solution (though still highly unlikely that there was no physical evidence.

In the event that there was no physical evidence, a competent attorney would have pointed out some things like the fact that eyewitnesses are notoriously unreliable, especially when making a cross-racial identification. And the counterpoint would be that this lady had briefly interacted with Roy, which increases the likelihood that she had correctly identified him.

I guess my main issue with this is that besides there being no real explanation for how the hell Roy winds up locked up for a rape he didn’t commit in the 2010s (probably) is that there was so much room here for an actual discussion on how the justice system treats black men and women today. Celestial says the jury didn’t believe her that Roy was with her all night. Well, what was the racial make-up of the jury? Was it actually a jury of Roy’s peers?

Not only did I feel like this was a missed opportunity, I noticed that there was a line somewhere in the book that seemed like a subtweet (what was this called before Twitter? Omg, someone help me.) to Jennifer Thompson-Cannino and Ronald Cotton (a story that you can read about in Picking Cotton). I’ll try to keep this brief, but basically Jennifer was brutally raped at knife point in the 80s and due to a variety of issues, including but not limited to the way that picking people out of a line-up and a lack of DNA testing ability, Ronald Cotton was wrongfully sent to prison. Ronald was eventually released after Jennifer’s clothes were sent away to be tested for DNA that turned out not to be his. Ronald spent almost twenty years in prison for this and now they’re somehow best friends and go around speaking about this horrifying set of events. This line struck me as in poor taste, but that’s probably because I’ve heard Jennifer speak twice, one of those times nearly everyone involved in the case was there. The two of them have created real change in North Carolina and if I’m not mistaken, most states in the country. Most people probably wouldn’t know about this, but like I said, I’ve seen Jennifer speak twice and one of the things I had hoped this book would discuss is the toll that prison takes on one’s health. It… doesn’t really do that though, beyond sort of cursorily making it clear that Roy’s mental state is different and that it was difficult for him to be IN prison.

Issue #2: Celestial’s Characterization

We get told that Celestial is independent more than we’re shown that Celestial is independent. I don’t know if it was a stylistic choice (I assume?), but there were huge events that we don’t get to see from Celestial’s perspective that would have helped this book make more sense. Obviously, Celestial’s life doesn’t end when Roy goes to prison. But we get to hear about things only in the letters that she writes to Roy and then later we see a couple of pretty huge events from Roy and Dre’s perspectives, but never hers. I never felt connected to Celestial in a way that’s separate from the fact that I didn’t really like her. It was like I didn’t have a full sense of who Celestial was or why she made the decisions she did, which meant the book was just one tragic event after another for no apparent reason. I could keep going, but I’ve already talked for so long.

Issue #3: Just… Why?

Black men have it rough in the world, obviously, and I’m not discounting that at all. And black women are often left picking up the pieces and being hurt in ways entirely separate from black men. And there’s a chance part of what I don’t understand about this book is because I’m a privileged white woman, so I won’t discount that. I have yet to see an Own Voices review that addresses this specific thing though, so I’m just going to go for it anyway.

When Roy gets out of prison, there’s a repeated refrain that he needs to be welcomed by a woman, that he needs to be welcomed back by a woman, etc. And this rubbed me the wrong way for a thousand reasons, not the least of which is that it is not the responsibility of any person to somehow fix a man. Or any person really. Go to therapy. Do the work. Obviously therapy can be expensive, but there are alternatives that are not making your mental health and well-being the responsibility of a woman or really any significant other. That’s not a healthy perspective to have, in my opinion.

Issue #4: Skip This if You Don’t Want Something Spoiled

When Roy is reunited with Celestial and tries to pressure her into having sex with him, her internal dialogue is rife with problematic sentiments that I worry are already internalized for so many women. While seeing them on page could potentially allow women to realize that it’s really not cool to have sex because you feel obligated to do so, I worry that it really just winds up coming across as condoning this weird concept that I think too many women feel. AND that men really do seem to think that it’s okay to keep pressuring women to have sex.

I know that this book wasn’t written prior to the #MeToo movement, but like, are you kidding? What Roy does is completely unacceptable in every way and I know that he doesn’t wind up forcing himself on Celestial, but every time he complained that Celestial didn’t want to have sex without a condom means that his sudden, “I don’t want to have sex if you aren’t in it 100%” meant literally nothing to me. I hated him. I hated pretty much all of the characters by this point, but this ending had me completely infuriated.

I’m going to wrap this up now but I could go on a whole separate rant about how there’s no need for books to be so depressingly sad, but I won’t. Just know that I stand by the fact that there’s value in books that sell joy. SO MUCH VALUE. If you’ve read this book, please share your thoughts with me down below.


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