An American Marriage by Tayari Jones
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
This is a review of the audio edition and deals with an issue that may only apply to the audio edition.
There are times when I think an audio book is, in fact, superior, to the written form. For instance, Lincoln at the Bardo. If I had read that, having brought it thinking it was a novel, I pretty sure I would have been frustrated at the format. But the audio book, with all those voice actors – that worked for me. My reaction to this book is heavily influenced by the structure of the audio performances. Both Mr. Crisden and Ms. Davis gave stellar performances, and it wouldn’t surprise if they get nominated for awards. The book itself, in terms of writing, is powerful. The subject matter timely – how the justice systems harms more than those who are unjustly accused, in large part, because of the color of their skin. Roy, one of the men who tells part of the story, is married to Celestial. Not quite newlyweds, but the first brush is still on the fruit, when he gets falsely accused of rape, found guilty, sentenced, and finally released after five years when the injustice of the system was brought to light. What happens to the marriage in that five-year span and once Roy gets out is the subject matter of the book. In addition, to the examination of “justice” on a family, Jones also looks at how gender roles play into that effect.
Jones deserves much credit because it is a bit hard to like Roy. You can feel sorry for him, you can admit the injustice and cruelty of what happened to him. Yet, even before his injustice, he doesn’t quite see Celestial as hers, and not his. But the reader shouldn’t lose sight of his stepping out on his marriage with Celestial. No, I’m not talking about what happens when he leaves jail, but before. Roy never directly says he physically cheated, but he mentions that 99% of the time he didn’t got beyond flirting (so 1% of the time he did, is the inference), and he brought lingerie for another woman. Maybe Celestial didn’t care if it was just sex, maybe she did. The listener doesn’t know.
And that’s the problem with the audio version.
The story is told via three viewpoints – Roy, Andre (Celestial’s oldest friend and, later, her partner), and Celestial. Part of the story is told though letters that Roy and Celestial send each other, most notably when Roy is in jail. When those letters are read, the listener hears Celestial via Roy’ voice or his view of her voice. IN other words, Crisden’s voice (or his voice trying to do a woman’s) instead of Eisa Davis’.
Which means, this story of a marriage, is largely told by Roy and Andre – Celestial has the smallest voice in the whole audio book.
Now, this might be intentional. Look at the symbolism of her name, for instance. Roy is the one that things happen to, the one who loses the most, so it is understandable that it is his story. But like all of us, Roy is not a 100% reliable narrator. Look, I am only talking how we all unreliable narrators whether or not we knowingly are.
The thing is, if this is a story about a marriage, then we need Celestial’s voice. IN her own voice. Being read Celestial’s letters in the voice of Roy makes her too removed from the reader. The inflection and emphasis on certain things change. Now, this could be Jones’ intention. It really could be. And if it is, it works really well. But in an audio book it is immensely annoying because the listener gets use to fake Celestial voice as opposed to real Celestial voice. This is incredibly jarring. So, jarring.
And fake Celestial’s voice is so whiny.
And then Roy, understandably so, frames things in a way that rubs you the wrong way (talking credit, in part, for Celestial’s store).
But the loss of a marriage, whether or not that marriage would have worked, is such a palpable feeling as well as the sense of relief that characters like Andre feel because it didn’t happen to them. The pressures that are brought on Celestial because she is a black woman married to a black man who has been unjustly locked up are also dealt with.
It is a really a beautifully written and thought-provoking book.
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