Mini-Reviews: An American Marriage & The Mothers

For this post, I decided to review together two novels by Black women who wrote about the lives of Black, middle-class individuals: An American Marriage by Tayari Jones, and The Mothers by Brit Bennett. Incidentally, both these novels also follow three main characters who happen to be involved in a love triangle. I’m not a fan of love triangles, but while these two novels did veer melodramatic, I also ended up enjoying them anyway. I’ll get right to it.

An American MarriageAN AMERICAN MARRIAGE by Tayari Jones
First published by Algonquin Books on January 29, 2018
Winner of the Women’s Prize for Fiction (2019)

My Rating: ★★★★☆

An American Marriage is a thought-provoking novel about what loyalty and fidelity mean in a marriage, especially after the unimaginable happens and all one’s plans for the future are destroyed. We follow three narrative voices: Roy and Celestial, the newleyweds, and Andre, Celestial’s childhood best friend. Roy and Celestial have been married for only a little over a year when Roy is falsely convicted of a crime he didn’t commit. Initially, the couple is hopeful that the decision will be reversed, but the layers of bureaucracy and the deep-seated prejudice against black men in the criminal justice system makes this a long and drawn-out process. As a result, Roy and Celestial then find themselves reluctantly settling into their strange, new, and separate lives.

I’ll start with what I liked about this novel. First, the narrative voices drew me in from the start, so I found it easy to get into the book. The chapters flowed well from one perspective to the next. While all three characters were compelling, I found myself especially rooting for Roy—I sympathized with him the most, and I felt deeply for his rage and grief at having all his ambitions destroyed following his incarceration. I didn’t always agree with him, especially on his views on women are to be treated in a marriage, but I never stopped rooting for him.

I felt more conflicted about Celestial and Andre’s perspectives, because while I disagreed with many of their choices and couldn’t actively root for either of them, I could at least understand where they were coming from. For example, while Roy holds on to the idea of his marriage with Celestial to keep his hopes up while in prison, Celestial is already moving on with her career as an artist—and also moving on from their marriage. This seemed painfully unfair to me, but I can also understand how Celestial can’t be expected to put her life on hold for Roy.

While I loved the writing and the flawed, morally complex characters, I found myself wanting more out of the novel than a story about marriage. I know, I know, what else did I expect from a title like An American Marriage? But still, I wish that Jones had also focused on the larger issues in her book, like racism and the American criminal justice system. I felt that the plot also suffered because of a lack of a focus on the macro—the story was so laser-focused on the love triangle that the plot took increasingly melodramatic turns as the novel went on, culminating in a rather in-your-face ending that made me cringe.

Still, while I didn’t love An American Marriage, it was still a quick and compelling read that gave me a lot to think about. I’d recommend this to anyone who likes reading about flawed, complex, and ‘unlikeable’ characters and morally ambiguous situations. However, if you are strongly against infidelity, you’d best stay clear of this one—I didn’t think it would make me uncomfortable, but I was surprised by how conflicted I felt about it here. Overall, this was a good read, and I’d be interested in checking out more of Jones’s work in the future.

Read from February 2-9, 2020

The Mothers

THE MOTHERS by Brit Bennett
First Published by Riverhead Books on October 11, 2016

My Rating: ★★★☆☆

My biggest issue with The Mothers is Bennett’s choice of narrator for the story. The Mothers follows the lives of three black teenagers, Nadia, Luke, and Aubrey, from their youth to adulthood, and examines the consequences of a mistake made in their youth. Their story is narrated from the perspective of ‘the mothers’, a group of elderly women who volunteer at the church where Luke’s father works as a pastor.

I think I’ve only encountered the first-person plural once before, in Chang-rae Lee’s On Such a Full Sea (2014). I found it very effective in that novel, so I was excited to see how Bennett would pull it off here. Unfortunately, the first-person plural didn’t feel like best choice to tell a story so intimate in scope and themes, like grief, abuse, family, and friendship. Because the mothers have limited access to the interior lives of Nadia, Luke, and Aubrey, most events were narrated from the outside looking in, occasionally with the appearance of being cobbled together from rumors and gossip. This made it difficult for me to connect with the characters, and I often had to infer what they were feeling instead of just being immersed in their experiences.

Then there’s the central premise of the novel, which is the idea that the mistakes we make in our youth haunt us all throughout our lives. I don’t personally subscribe to this belief, though I can understand how certain mistakes carry more weight than others. However, I don’t think that the ‘mistake’ here is something that merits a lifelong haunting. It’s difficult to talk about this without spoiling anything, so I’ll just quote the blurb from my paperback copy: “…the secret that results from this teen romance [of Nadia and Luke]—and the subsequent cover-up—will have an impact that goes far beyond their youth.” Told from the perspective of the religious mothers, this ‘secret and subsequent cover-up’ takes on a moralistic and disapproving undertone, which made it seem like the devastating consequences were brought about by the characters’ immoral actions. That could just be my reading, but I find I’m particularly sensitive to such undertones after having grown up in a religious environment, so I was at odds with the book because of that.

However, despite all that, I did find myself breezing through The Mothers, and I did enjoy Bennett’s writing style on a sentence level. I’ve underlined a number of passages just because I liked the way they sounded or because I loved the metaphors she used. I also had no issues with the plotting or with how the chapters transitioned from one to the next, so it was easy to go along with the flow of the novel.

Overall, I felt that The Mothers fell short of its own potential in how the characters and themes were handled. I kept wanting to feel more with the characters rather than inferring what they’re feeling, and I wished that the theme of grief had been explored more. Then again, this is Bennett’s debut novel, so hopefully I’d get on more with her sophomore release, The Vanishing Half. 

Have you read any of these novels, or any of Jones’s or Bennett’s other works? What did you think of them? Let me know in the comments!

Read from April 26-30, 2020 | Find me on Goodreads!

24 thoughts on “Mini-Reviews: An American Marriage & The Mothers

  1. Great reviews!! I had similar thoughts on An American Marriage. I thought it offered a lot of great commentary on marriage (which, duh as you point out lololol), patriarchy, and gender expectations…but I was surprised that it revolved around Roy’s prison sentence for a crime he didn’t commit, without really saying much about the criminal justice system.

    And it was great to read a more critical review of The Mothers – I always love reading about hyped books from a different angle and gaining a more well-balanced perspective!!

    1. Thank you! Glad we both had the gall to expect more from American Marriage despite being told otherwise by the title 🤣 And thank you—I was so ready to believe the hype but I just wasn’t convinced of the novel in the end!

  2. Sorry to hear that The Mothers fell short of its potential and that you didn’t get on with the narrative perspective. I’ve never read Brit Bennett, but I recently downloaded The Vanishing Half. Good to hear you mostly enjoyed An American Marriage. I decided against it long ago – to me it sounded a bit like endless meanderings on a marriage, which isn’t really my thing. 😉

    1. I’ve heard that The Vanishing Half is better than The Mothers, so I hope you’ll enjoy it! I’d love to hear what you think too. To be honest, I only picked it up for a book club—otherwise, books on marriage aren’t really my thing, but I suppose it also surprised me!

  3. Literary Elephant

    Great reviews! I felt very much the same about An American Marriage, and am hoping to read both of Bennett’s books soon so I’m happy to have a better idea of what to expect there. I suspect I’ll agree with you about the narrative POV and not buying into the longevity of mistakes made in youth, but I am very glad to hear you liked the writing. I’m predicting I’ll like The Vanishing Half a little better based on what I’ve heard about it so far, but I’m a “save the best for last” type so will probably still start with The Mothers.

    1. Glad to hear we’re on the same page about AAM! And that’s a good idea, saving the best for last—I’m rather looking forward to Vanishing Half now because of it, and I’m glad I read The Mothers first because I know at least that I can “get on” with Bennett’s writing. As usual, I’d love to hear what you think after you read them!

  4. Great reviews! Overall, I enjoyed An American Marriage, but I agree that it felt like it lacked a broader perspective and there was a feeling of missed opportunity. The Mothers has been on my TBR for a long time and I still hope to read it. I really enjoyed The Vanishing Half!

    1. Glad we’re on the same page about that one! I did find AAM extremely readable, so I was bummed that it didn’t quite live up to the hype for me. Oooh, I’m happy to hear you enjoyed Vanishing Half! Now I’m even more eager to read it. 🙂

  5. Pingback: Sunday post #1 A busy writing week – The Violet review

  6. Ha, I felt very similarly about these two. Bennett’s The Vanishing Half is definitely better than The Mothers, IMO, so I recommend giving it a go. I liked An American Marriage a lot but my favourite Jones is still her unfairly neglected debut novel, Leaving Atlanta.

    1. Glad to hear Vanishing Half worked a lot better for you! I’ve read a number of similar sentiments from other readers. Oooh, I’ve only heard of her other novel, Silver Sparrow, but not Leaving Atlanta—I’ll be sure to check it out!

      1. Yeah, I think Leaving Atlanta is the only one of hers that hasn’t been reissued and rejacketed – it’s a shame as it’s so good!

  7. Great reviews! I got an ARC of The Mothers back when it came out and I actually ended up DNFing because of the choice for the narrators. While I understand and appreciate the idea, I felt too detached from the story and ended up DNFing, but I still regret not finishing it, so I might go back to it someday. I am really excited to pick up An American Marriage.

  8. One of the reasons I was so interested in An American Marriage is because I am an American who is married. I loved all the nuance. The marriage is a unsteady before Roy is taken to prison. If it has a rocky foundation, should she stay and support this man, or is he on his own? When you get married, yes, you know the other person intimately, but you don’t have a lifetime behind you. While you’re married, you grow and grow and grow. Your marriage can change over and over, growing stronger and better, or even come brittle. The fact that Roy and Celestial didn’t have that time to grow together, how “tight” is their relationship anyway? If they didn’t have a marriage license between them, would she be expected to put her life on hold for him? I just thought it brought up tons of great questions about what marriage means and how people change together.

    1. Oooh, that’s interesting coming from the perspective of a married person. As I am not married and personally not very invested in the idea of marriage, I didn’t find the novel as gripping, though it was certainly thought-provoking. You bring up a good point about marriage as changing over time—that’s something I hardly hear about from married couples. The older ones I know just seemed to get bored of each other, which is sad.

      1. If you think about it, you always get married to a stranger. Even if you date five years before you’re married, that’s only five years. Think about how many friendships you’ve had for five years that utterly changed. It’s almost like you have to get to relearn this person every day. You never stop learning if you’re interested, and it makes things interesting.

      2. I’ve never really compared it to how friendships change over time, but that’s a good comparison! I emerged out of my last romantic relationship realizing that I perhaps had too rigid of an idea of what a relationship should look like, so this is something to reflect on.

      3. Sometimes you feel more like friends, and sometimes you feel more like a support system for each other. Sometimes you feel very traditionally “married.” Marriage is change. Lauren Olamina never wrote about that, lol.

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