Books and Bagels and Morning Book Break Book Discussion Groups on
An American Marriage by Tayari Jones
The Books and Bagels Book Discussion Group members rated the book between a 1.5 and 5.0. The average of the ratings was 3.51.
The Morning Book Break Book Discussion Group rated the book between a 3.0 and 5.0. The average of the ratings was 4.23.
For the past seven years during the fall, the book clubs have read selections from the Suburban Mosaic, an organization that “seeks to confront issues of racial and social justice and promote cross-cultural understanding through literature.” (http://www.suburbanmosaicbooks.org/)
This 2018-2019 season, Suburban Mosaic selected the nonfiction book, Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption by Bryan Stevenson. Stevenson was a young lawyer when he founded the Equal Justice Initiative, a legal-practice dedicated to defending those most desperate and in need: the poor, the wrongly condemned, and women and children trapped in the farthest reaches of our criminal justice system. One of his first cases was that of Walter McMillian, a young man who was sentenced to die for a notorious murder he insisted he didn’t commit. The case drew Bryan into a tangle of conspiracy, political machination, and legal brinkmanship — and transformed his understanding of mercy and justice forever. Just Mercy is at once an unforgettable account of an idealistic, gifted young lawyer’s coming-of-age, a moving window into the lives of those he has defended, and an inspiring argument for compassion in the pursuit of true justice. Just Mercy is soon to be a major motion picture starring Michael B. Jordan and Jamie Foxx.
Last year, during the 2018-2019 book club season, the facilitator selected The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead, Small Great Things by Jodi Picoult, and Varina by Charles Frazier. (See previous posts for more information about these books) During these clubs, the facilitator and other members brought to light some of the work that Bryan Stevenson has done at the Equal Justice Initiative. In an attempt to expose the members to different material, the selector chose An American Marriage as a fiction substitute for Just Mercy. Tayari Jones attempts to cover different ground by showing readers how mass incarceration affects the family unit, specifically a marriage.
Club members discussed the title and the cover art. We discussed whether or not the title represents the novel and what about the novel makes it a particularly “American.” Several members thought the author did an excellent job portraying the state of marriage in modern day America. The novel shows the various states of marriage and the author also shows a couple deciding not to marry, but live in “communion.” The author describes the different stages of romance through various characters—the readers are exposed to first dates, engagements, marriage, divorce, second and third marriages, love affairs, etc. The author did an excellent job in attempting to describe love and marriage—a nearly impossible feat. The members thought Tayari Jones wrote a well-written, thought-provoking novel that has readers talking about important topics.
The facilitator told the group members that other book clubs have gotten into fights defending the actions of one of the three main characters. Book club members have taken sides about what they thought each character should or should not have done. One all male book club disputed the actions between Andre and Roy. Many in this group felt Andre broke the “bro code” by having relations with Celestial, who was married to his best friend, Roy.
The group members at the Rolling Meadows Library treated each other very considerately and respectfully. We talked about the three alternating perspectives in the novel—Celestial, Roy, and Andre. We talked about which perspective we responded more positively towards. The members felt Tayari Jones wrote vivid three-dimensional characters, which is why readers are responding strongly to the different characters she brought to life.
Celestial’s view of love: (pp.138)
“Much of life is timing and circumstance, I see that now. Roy came into my life at the time when I needed a man like him. Would I have galloped into this love affair if I had never left Atlanta? I don’t know. But how you feel love and understand love are two different things. Now, so many years down the road, I recognize that I was alone and adrift and that he was lonely in the way that only a ladies man can be. He reminded me of Atlanta, and I reminded him of the same. All these were reasons why we were drawn to each other, but standing with him outside of Maroons, we were past reason. Human emotion is beyond comprehension, smooth and uninterrupted, like an orb made of blown glass.”
Tayari Jones attempts to show how marriage is like a tree (the family unit) and the bride and groom are like a sapling. Marriage attempts to bond two different families into one unit—the next generation, “But home isn’t where you land; home is where you launch. You can’t pick your home any more than you can choose your family. In poker, you get five cards. Three of them you can swap out, but two are yours to keep: family and native land.” (pp. 4)
Unfortunately, Roy’s prison term ramps up the already present friction between Celestial and Roy and it becomes evident that: “Our marriage was a sapling graft that didn’t have time to take.” (pp.284)
We discussed the structure of the novel, which at times is told through the exchange of letters. Many members enjoyed this structure. Some members wished the letters were dated; others members felt the author made a good choice in not dating the letters because this allowed for the lengthy passage of time with regards to the incarceration. In the interviews below, the author chose letter writing to eliminate some of the mundane aspects of prison life and to protect the reader from the violent aspects of prison life. The author wanted her novel to have wide readership, and she felt a dark, gritty prison read would not have wide appeal. She hopes more people will read her book, enjoy talking about the love triangle and will begin to ponder the effects mass incarceration has on the wider community.
In an interview, Tayari Jones did she said, “I don’t see how our prison system is working for anyone—not the people who have committed crimes, not the victims, not the tax payers. Nobody is winning here.” We discussed whether or not the novel illustrated this point and whether or not our opinions on the American prison system changed after reading An American Marriage. Many members felt that they did not learn anything new about the prison system, but agree with Tayari Jones’s view.
We talked about Celestial’s business and the symbolism behind the baby dolls she creates.
Without including any spoilers, we talked about the incredibly important person Roy meets while in prison. Several members thought this was an interesting plot device and other members felt it was too contrived. Even the author was surprised that Roy met this person. Tayari Jones does not write with an outline; she likens her style of writing to this metaphor: she is the driver in a car with the characters in her novels. As they travel along in the car, her characters make decisions and she lets them, but sometimes she has to take control of various situations. Members enjoyed Tayari Jones’s writing style and would definitely read another book by the author. A few members disliked the book because it was too contrived and written like a “Lifetime Movie”.
We talked about the two major twists at the end of the novel. Most members felt the author did a great job of tying up the loose ends. Although it is not a fairy tale ending—the novel ended in a hopeful manner giving each character dignity.
For books and audiobooks in our collection by Tayari Jones, please click here.
Tayari Jones speaks about the inspiration behind An American Marriage:
Tayari Jones talks about letter writing, her love of The Odyssey, and mass incarceration:
Tayari Jones talks about her love of bookstores; she says with every book you can visit a different world and meet new people. Tayari Jones talks about one of her favorite authors, Toni Morrison. Tayari Jones admires Toni Morrison so much that she has soil from Toni Morrison’s homeland in a jar in her office.
Members highly recommended watching the film If Beale Street Could Talk, based on the novel by James Baldwin.