As author Tayari Jones has herself pointed out, An American Marriage, winner of the 2019 Women’s Prize for Fiction and an Oprah Book Club 2.0 selection, was a “breakthrough” nearly two decades in the making, reaching an audience many times over that of three previous well-regarded novels. For that reason, as well as the tale’s topical backdrop, the dissection crew was eager to explore how a devoted novelist remained true to her voice while still managing to capture the zeitgeist of the times.
“How did the author do it?” is the key question behind all of our discussions. And in this case, over a four-day period, it became clear that, despite quibbles over a narrative structure that at times created distance from the story action, Jones achieved her due by focusing on three aspects that elevated her story:
- Jones crafted an intimate, heartfelt story against the backdrop of a larger, intractable menace.
- She developed realistic, flawed characters whose rich backstories enhance the story and challenge the reader.
- She continually opened up her story in surprising ways, raising stakes and ratcheting up the tension.
While I promise to keep final novel outcomes hidden, fair warning that *spoilers* do lurk in the following samplings of the group’s discussion of these attributes.
The Personal becomes the Universal
Hints of trouble are already brewing when newlyweds Roy Hamilton Jr. and Celestial Davenport begin a fateful trek from their moderately affluent home in Atlanta to the home of his parents in the rural town of Eloe, Louisiana. The give and take of a new marriage, and a love still finding its footing, are things every young couple must face. But any hope of a natural evolution for Roy and Celestial’s relationship is quickly shattered when Roy is falsely accused of rape and swiftly railroaded into a 12-year prison sentence despite a shocking lack of evidence. Yet Jones wisely avoids sending her story along a didactic path on the evils of a compromised system of justice or confining the plot within the constraints of a judicial procedural. Instead, she charts an unexpected route, one filled with hard choices and second chances (even if not the kinds one might have chosen) begins to emerge from their unfortunate fate, offering an even richer tale for the reader. Jan O’Hara captured that sense well when she said, “Setting aside the issue of an imperfect and biased justice system, the central question for me was about loyalty and what actually binds a marriage together.”
It is the highly personal story arcs that arise from character misfortunes which give An American Marriage its resonance. As Elissa Field explained, “The more vividly specific she (Jones) got in writing about a very specific conflict or character, the story became that much more universal in its impact.”
Flawed Characters whose Backstories Enrich the Tale
Of course, such impact is only possible if the characters are compelling, and Jones excelled at creating memorable ones. Her cast of characters, both major and secondary, weren’t always likable; but they were all undeniably human. As Elissa observed, “I was impressed by the ways that Jones portrayed how adults are aware of the imperfection of their choices, even in the moments of making those choices.” Indeed, Jones never hid their imperfections. Instead, she wisely chose a narrative structure which allowed her characters to reveal them in their own words.
Moreover, each character action, particularly painful ones when there was no right answer, were informed by bountiful backstories – family histories, admitted flaws, lamentations over past mistakes. These seamlessly woven passages exposed the reader to their core motivations. Nancy Johnson in particular was impressed by the author’s skill in this area. As she put it, “I loved the opening backstory from Roy and Celestial. It was as if they were speaking directly to me about who they are. Those first chapters helped me connect with them. Yet the tension was still there. I knew something big would turn their world upside down.”
This delicate balance of allowing unvarnished confessions from her characters while keeping the mystery of how their competing desires and flawed perspectives would ultimately play out was one Jones maintained from the opening page until the final coda.
A Story that Expands in Surprising Ways (long after the opening act)
On Day 3 of our discussion, Alisha Rohde hit upon an interesting aspect of Jones’s character development when she offered this praise, “I appreciated that we got Andre’s vivid internal life, not just Roy’s and Celestial’s.” Jan O’Hara pointed out that the sudden deep dive into a character who until well into the novel had seemed a secondary character was an interesting choice. But it was far from the only one. An American Marriage continually tripped up the reader with reveals that changed the dynamic. Elizabeth Havey praised “the skill of the writer — introducing us to many characters and then revealing more about them and their inner desires and drives when something stirs the waters or upsets the balance.”
The continual expansion of the story into new territory, coupled with the conflicted obligations of its characters – to themselves and to each other – created a rising sense of tension. Many readers, myself included, feared the characters, as well-intentioned as they had been at the start, might well find themselves in dire opposition with each other. All of them were suffering the fallout of a false imprisonment that had led them to choices they otherwise would never have made, until ultimately there was no way to avoid hurting someone for whom they care or had once cared.
And it is during this painful culmination when the wisdom of Jones’s approach to her modern fable shines through, for her making the stakes so highly personal leads to a profound revelation. As Elissa concluded,
This tension is what forces a reader back onto the conclusion that it is society that has to change. People in the characters’ situations cannot be healed, and society has to realize the damage and stop breaking them this way.”
These are just a few of our takeaways in a novel offering numerous lessons. But what are your thoughts? If you read An American Marriage, what aspects did you find intriguing, helpful, or even frustrating? If you haven’t read it, might your work in progress benefit from these techniques? Could a deep dive into a character stretch your story in new direction? Would a surprising twist heighten the tension? Should you go further in increasing the personal stakes for your characters? Please share your thoughts below, so that we can learn together.
And if you’d like to join the group for our next dissection of My Sister, The Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite, please join us on Facebook. We would love to welcome you aboard!
About John J Kelley
John J Kelley crafts tales of individuals at a crossroads, exploring themes of growth, reconciliation and community. His debut novel, The Fallen Snow, about a young soldier’s homecoming at the close of WWI, received a Publishers Weekly starred review and earned an Honorable Mention nod at the 2012 Foreword Reviews Book-of-the-Year Awards.
Born and raised in the Florida panhandle, John graduated from Virginia Tech and for a time served as a military officer. Today he lives with his partner in Washington, DC.
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Author: John J Kelley