Mari HowardSeptember 16, 2019

An American Marriage

by Tayari Jones

It's a really personal choice: why we read, what we read, and when... Reading the Amazon reviews, I was struck by the number of readers who  said they 'couldn't engage with the characters'  Or that 'the characters all do far too much overthinking,'  or ‘talk too much the same’ or ‘are too articulate about their situation and feelings’. Others readers (like me)Reviewing a book involves personal choice. , found the novel captivating, empathetic, or simply un-put-downable.

Why I loved this book

'Beautifully written' wouldn't justify the delicate depths of the writing, whether in dialogue or description. Jones’s choice of settings and situations perfectly matches the demands of the story. Rather than resorting to ‘viscerally’ or ‘physicality’, Jones explores emotional sensations of being a character is excited or distressed. For example, a main character shown sorting through some boxes which have been filled with his possessions (removed from a chest of drawers without his knowledge). In this passage of quiet and delicate writing, Jones evokes the emotions engendered by discovering items from childhood or with strong association to his mother. This perfectly engages emotions and empathy in the reader. Although another reader complained that this kind of writing is ‘boring’, others (like me) found Jones’s giving each of three main characters in turn a first person narrative meant we discovered that person’s unique situation rather than simply seeing them act out some classic physical behaviour (swearing, throwing up, crying, throwing things about). We the readers experienced empathy with knowledge and with imagination. We share what they see on the ‘inner eye’, and feel as the character feels. And this device (if we can call it a device) ensures that at each stage you visit and revisit the way they are, the place they are 'in’, and the reason they act as they do. Not that you therefore approve or disapprove, but that you know or comprehend their motivation.

And yes, it is more shocking when someone does ‘break’ and do something violent.

So, this is a book which is definitely ‘literary fiction’, both thoughtful and thought provoking. It is not the book to teach us about the ins and outs of the American legal system, or the book to describe what marriage is, and all the ways in which it can go wrong. It is not a Chick-Lit romp, or a mystery. But it will satisfy readers who are looking for careful and well observed writing about human behaviour under stress, the decisions we make and why, and the lessons we learn from life, how maturity grows and possibly helps us to settle and live with a compromise.