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 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 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!