43 pages 1 hour read

Tayari Jones

An American Marriage

Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 2018

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Summary and Study Guide


On its publication in 2018, An American Marriage received critical acclaim for its examination of the complex dynamic of contemporary relationships and its timely exploration of black identity in 21st century America. Tayari Jones, a professor of creative writing at Emory University in Atlanta, published three earlier novels, but it was An American Marriage that catapulted her to international acclaim. The book was a selection for Oprah Winfrey’s book club, a New York Times best-seller, and received the United Kingdom’s Women’s Prize for Fiction.

Plot Summary

The story is told by three narrators: Roy Hamilton, an upwardly mobile sales executive in Atlanta; Celestial, Roy’s Wife, a gifted artisan who sells hand-crafted dolls; and Andre (Dre) Tucker, a photographer and childhood friend of Celestial who first introduced her to Roy. Roy and Celestial, married a year and a half, find their relationship often tempestuous. Roy wants a child, but Celestial is unsure; Roy still fancies his youthful charisma and defends flirting with women as a necessary element of his job.

The couple drive from Atlanta to Roy’s home in Eloe, a small town in rural Louisiana, to spend Labor Day weekend with his parents. They decide to spend the night at a roadside hotel. When Roy confides in Celestial that his father is not his biological father, Celestial is incensed over his keeping secrets. The two squabble, and Roy ends up walking about the hotel to cool off. He meets an older woman getting ice. The two talk a bit, and he walks her back to her room. He then returns to his room. During the night, local police raid the room. A stunned Roy is charged with first-degree rape—the woman was attacked and named him as the perpetrator. Roy denies the charge but is sentenced to twelve years in state prison.

Roy manages to maintain a relationship with Celestial through letters, but that grows increasingly difficult. Celestial finds success with her doll-making, becoming something of a celebrity within the arts community of Atlanta. Her jailhouse visits drop off. Her letters reveal a movement toward independence and her uneasiness over having a husband in jail for rape. While in jail, Roy learns that his mother, Olive, has died of lung cancer. Roy is devastated. However, Roy shares a cell with his biological father, serving a life sentence for murder, who becomes a protector within the brutal environment of the prison. Now on her own, Celestial gravitates toward her friendship with Dre. When the two drive together to Louisiana for Olive’s funeral service, they become lovers. Despite the objections of her own father, Celestial agrees to marry Dre even though she is not legally divorced.

Through the diligence of Celestial’s lawyer uncle, Roy’s release is secured after five years. He returns to Eloe and to the news that his wife is now engaged to Dre. Confused, hurt, and angry, Roy turns to a high school friend, Davina Hardwick, whom he meets in the Walmart where she works. That night, the two have sex. When Dre phones from Atlanta and asks for the chance to talk to Roy, he agrees. Even as Dre heads to Louisiana, however, Roy heads to Atlanta to confront his wife, more determined than ever to restore his marriage with the woman he still loves.

The reunion with Celestial is difficult and tense. She is living with Dre in Roy and Celestial’s home. Roy struggles with guilt and anger, and Celestial has her own divided feelings. Roy opens up about life in the prison and how the idea of Celestial alone kept him going, how he never abandoned hope for their relationship. Celestial reveals the depth of her involvement with Dre. Roy takes an axe to a beautiful century-old tree in the front yard. As Roy swings at the tree’s massive trunk, Dre drives up. The two confront each other and then begin to fight until the police arrive. Celestial reluctantly agrees to remain Roy’s wife; Roy, devastated by the reluctance in her voice and certain she is staying with him only out of duty, returns to Eloe alone. 

Over the next several months, Roy agrees to open a barbershop with his father and drives back to the prison every Sunday to visit his biological father. He continues to see Davina until he proposes to her. She accepts. Celestial tells Roy that she cannot bring herself to marry again, but she is expecting a child with Dre. Roy, now content, wishes only peace for his ex-wife. 

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