An American Marriage tells the story of Roy and Celestial, happy newlyweds living in the Southern United States. Just as they’re beginning their careers – him as a young executive and her as an artist – and a new life together, they’re torn apart. Roy is arrested for a sexual assault he didn’t commit and sentenced to twelve years in prison. Our An American Marriage Book Club questions and guide will help your group navigate the multiple, complex themes raised by the book’s premise, which include justice, race, and love.
The novel is told from three perspectives, with Roy, Celestial, and Andre each narrating different chapters. Andre is Celestial’s best friend, and they find a renewed intimacy and comfort in one another while Roy is in prison. Our book club questions for An American Marriage will help you consider and discuss the three characters, their circumstances, and their fates.
This An American Marriage discussion guide also includes the book’s synopsis, some discussion-worthy reviews, and further recommendations. If you liked it, keep scrolling because we have three books like An American Marriage for your next book club read!
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An American Marriage Synopsis
An American Marriage, Tayari Jones
Newlyweds Celestial and Roy are the embodiment of both the American Dream and the New South. He is a young executive, and she is an artist on the brink of an exciting career. But as they settle into the routine of their life together, they are ripped apart by circumstances neither could have imagined. Roy is arrested and sentenced to twelve years for a crime Celestial knows he didn’t commit.
Though fiercely independent, Celestial finds herself bereft and unmoored, taking comfort in Andre, her childhood friend, and best man at their wedding. As Roy’s time in prison passes, she is unable to hold on to the love that has been her center. After five years, Roy’s conviction is suddenly overturned, and he returns to Atlanta ready to resume their life together.
This stirring love story is a profoundly insightful look into the hearts and minds of three people who are at once bound and separated by forces beyond their control. An American Marriage is a masterpiece of storytelling, an intimate look deep into the souls of people who must reckon with the past while moving forward—with hope and pain—into the future.
10 An American Marriage Book Club Questions
- In the first chapter of An American Marriage, Roy hints at one of the book’s key themes – the difference between how we see ourselves and how others see us. He says, “Celestial used to say I’m a country boy to the core, but I never cared for that designation.”
Why doesn’t Roy want to be seen as a “country boy”? How do the character’s upbringings differ, and how do they affect how they view one another?
- Similarly, within the legal system, race is Roy’s defining feature. Celestial says of him, “he didn’t do anything but be a black man in the wrong place at the wrong time.”
How does the book portray the difference between the way that Roy’s loved ones see him and how America (and the American justice system) sees him?
- Roy also says that “you can’t pick your home any more than you can choose your family.” Do you agree? What about us is decided from the moment we’re born, and what do we have control over?
- The characters keep secrets from one other, which are revealed throughout the novel. For example, Roy hides that Big Roy isn’t his biological father from Celestial. What other secrets are hidden? What impact do they have once they’re out in the open?
- Who, if anyone, is at fault for Celestial and Roy’s marriage falling apart? Which character is most to blame? Could any of them have prevented it?
- Celestial says she began making dolls after having an abortion. Why do you think she did this? What is the meaning behind the doll she makes of Roy? What was she hoping to convey?
- Why do you think the book is called An American Marriage? What aspects of the plot are uniquely American? Which are universal?
- In an interview with The Paris Review, Tayari Jones says of Celestial and Roy, “I think what love costs them is different. Roy believes in love, but it costs Roy nothing to continue to be devoted to Celestial.”
Do you agree? What does love cost Celestial? Are there aspects of her experience that are more challenging than his?
- What has changed about each of the characters by the end of the book? Have they grown? Have their circumstances improved? Did you find it hopeful?
- What has the book taught you? About race, justice, or love? What will you take away from it the most?
Selected Reviews for An American Marriage
“This book covers pretty much every aspect of life impacting all of us, […] I can assure you that it is incredibly hard to pick a side here, despite the pressures they both face not just from their circumstances but also from their family. A great, unique read. Very touching.”
“Well written and you feel like you get to know the characters well but that’s almost the problem with this book. The characters aren’t likable. At times too much is said between them, others not enough but not in a mysterious way. […] Great arc and pace, just hard to feel like you wanted anything good for anyone except Big Roy.”
“The book wasn’t about the verdict… it’s about relationships. It’s about how tenuous relationships can be without adding what happened… it’s wondering if the end was inevitable without the middle.”
“I would say that it’s tragic because it shows life’s injustice and the messiness of human relationships. However, it is not gratuitously melancholy like a lot of books–it’s real and there’s growth and hope.”
“I liked how the author weaved in the complexities of being a successful black American. Roy was a rising business executive but because he was in the wrong place at the wrong time and fit a certain description his life/marriage was upended. […] But some of the decisions that Celestial and Roy were making were nonsensical to me and not fully explained. Particularly in Celestial’s case toward the end of the book. I didn’t understand her. […]”
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3 Books Like An American Marriage
An American Marriage is an Oprah’s book club pick. If you like her choices, you can peruse our other Oprah book club guides, which include Becoming, Caste, The Invention of Wings and Between the World and Me.
Native Son, Richard Wright
If you’d like another complex, thrilling read, you’ll love Native Son by Richard Wright. It explores themes of race, fate, and justice in a unique and challenging way through the story of Bigger Thomas. Bigger is a twenty-year-old black man living in Chicago in the 1930s. When he commits a crime, the novel pushes you to ask who is at fault and how justice could truly be served.
The Vanishing Half, Brit Bennett
Brit Bennett’s The Vanishing Half is for anyone interested in exploring racial identity and the extent to which our lives are shaped by social ideas of identity. The book is about identical twins who take different paths: one chooses to stay where they grew up in a small, black community, the other leaves for California and “passes” as a white woman. It’s an emotive novel that investigates the concept of race itself.
We’ve also got a book club guide for The Vanishing Half.
Maybe in Another Life, Taylor Jenkins Reid
If you love reading about love, secrets, and destiny, Maybe in Another Life by Taylor Jenkins Reid is for you. The novel tells two versions of Hannah Martin’s story in alternating chapters. In one, she decides to leave her high school sweetheart where she ran into him at the bar; in the other, she chooses to stay and have one more drink with him. The consequences of each story illustrate the power of free will while asking if we really have choice in our lives at all.
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