During a 7-day hospital stay (which we will address soon), my bookmark remained, hopelessly, at page 29 of Tayari Jones’s An American Marriage. Every time I’d pick up the book to read, someone would come to visit or I’d fall asleep. And other times, with my book across the room, I’d have to wait for someone to unhook my IV at which point—at long last, free from liquid-pumping bondage—I’d run and pee and then (because, such is life) forget to grab my book on the way back. I gave up on the task, in retrospect, way too easily.
My cousin, perhaps a bigger bookworm than me: his mere book-pusher—came to visit and upon picking up the book was instantly taken with one sentence. One. During conversation, he’d awaken from a googley-eyed trance to tell me he was still thinking about that one line. When I finally got a hold of An American Marriage, I saw more of what he saw. Though to be fair, I was on page 29 and saw Jones’s captivating, witty, and moving language from page 1.
An American Marriage centers on Celestial and Roy, young in marriage and age and mind. When Roy is falsely accused of a crime and sentenced to 12 years in prison, Celestial and Roy’s marriage is put under the ultimate test. But not all parties involved are willing to fight for the marriage and when Roy is exonerated after serving 5 years of his sentence, he returns to a marriage that’s crumbled beyond recognition. An American Marriage is a portrait of marriage that’s at once brutally honest and yet not void of the romance we love to see in any book on marriage. Moving between three perspectives, Jones expertly portrays each character through an honest, sympathetic, and flawed lens. And while I saw the faults of each character (yes, fine, some more than others), I couldn’t say outright that I hated one or rooted for another. Ultimately, what I loved most about An American Marriage is Jones’s use of language to gracefully move the reader through a complex and nuanced situation.
Someone told me I’d breeze through this book and it’s certainly possible. An American Marriage is (as we publishing folk say) compulsively readable, one, because of the “oh shiiiiiiiiiiiiii” nature of the story and, two, because the language really carries you. The rhythmic pacing, the witty sayings, and sing-songy phrases seem to blur the sentences together and before you know it, you’ve devoured the book whole. No, this is a book I would intentionally drink in slowly. Along the way, I came across many passages and quotes in the book that really stayed with me. With no context needed, here are some of my favorites quotes.
“Memory is a queer creature, an eccentric curator.”
“Love is the enemy of sound judgment, and occasionally this is in service of the good.”
“When a man wails like that you know it’s all the tears that he was never allowed to shed, from Little League disappointment to teenage heartbreak, all the way to whatever injured his spirit just last year.”
“In the dark, she spoke with her lips so close to mine that I could taste her words, rich and peaty.”
“There should be a word for this, the way it feels to steal something that’s already yours.”
“I had not cried since I was sentenced and I had humiliated myself before a judge who didn’t care. On that horrible day, my snotty sobbing had merged with Celestial and Olive’s mournful accompaniment. Now I suffered a cappella; the weeping burned my throat like when you vomit up strong liquor. That one word, [spoiler], was my only prayer as I thrashed on the ground like I was feeling the Holy Ghost, only what I was going through was pure rapture. I spasmed on that cold black earth in pain, physical pain. My joints hurt; I experienced what felt like a baton against the back of my head. It was like I relived every injury of my entire life. The pain went on until it didn’t, and I sat up, dirty and spent.”
“This is the face of man who has loved too hard.”
“It’s hard to mark time when your heart is a pinball in your chest.”
“I kissed her every way I could think of. I kissed her forehead like she was my daughter. I kissed her quivering eyelids like she was my dead mother. I kissed her hard on her cheeks like you do before you kill someone. I kissed her collarbone the way you do when you want more. I pulled her earlobe with my teeth the way you do when you know what someone likes. I did everything, and she sat as pliable as a doll.”
“In the private library of my spirit, there is a dictionary of words that aren’t.
…On those pages is a mysterious character that conveys what it is to have no volition even when you do. On that same page it is explained how once or twice in your life you will find yourself bared, underneath the weight of a man, but a most ordinary word will save you.”
“The vast generosity of women is a mysterious tunnel, and nobody knows where it leads.”