Celestial and Roy had been married for a year now, and they were just beginning to talk about babies when they went to visit his parents for the holidays. While they were fast asleep in the middle of the night, police broke into their hotel room and dragged Roy away. An old woman he had been kind to earlier in the evening had been raped, and although she couldn’t see her attacker in the dark, she pinned it on Roy. He went to prison for being a young black man in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Their families were in shock, and a well-connected uncle immediately went to work to get Roy released. Celestial visited him regularly, and at home she toiled harder than ever to succeed in her doll-making business, along with the help of her childhood friend, André. Roy got a new cellmate, an older man who became a mentor. The years went by, and they each made a life for themselves. Nothing happened as they had planned, but they had to keep on living and making the best choices they could.
Tayari Jones’ novel, an Oprah pick and on many “Best of 2018” lists, deals with a myriad of issues that tie into and flow out of one another. Certainly, racism in our criminal justice system is front and center, but while news stories concentrate on the injustice to the individual, Jones takes us inside a relationship, a young marriage that is imperfect and just trying to find its footing, but filled with hopes and dreams waiting to come to fruition. When the husband is incarcerated, it is not just a crime against him, but it also tears a rift across his wife’s life, the lives of his parents, her parents, their friends, and even the children they might have had. It creates a ripple effect spreading out from their little circle of two.
Jones also examines marriage itself. All couples bring baggage into a relationship, and who can say what would have happened if Roy had never gone to jail? Perhaps he would have been successful in business, or perhaps his uneasiness about the difference in their families’ finances would have overcome him. Perhaps he would have been supportive of Celestial’s business, or perhaps jealousy may have made him petty and broken their marriage apart. Perhaps children would have healed all of their problems, or perhaps they would have thrown them into sharper relief. Celestial and Roy will never know what their marriage was meant to be, because their involuntary separation has become the defining issue of their lives, and while that may not be the true cause of every problem they face, it will certainly bear the blame.
This compelling story reveals the complexities of all American families, generations filled with secrets and bound by blood, love, betrayal, and compromise. The chapters are told in turn by the main characters, giving the reader a sympathetic understanding of everyone’s perspective. All of the characters are realistically flawed, and I remember telling a colleague one morning, “At this point, I’m just furious with all of them,” but I couldn’t wait to get back home to see what happened to them. Celestial and Roy will get under the readers’ skin and stay with them long after the novel is closed.
Disclaimer: I read a library copy of this book. Opinions expressed are solely my own and may not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.