Book Review: An American Marriage by Tayari Jones

An American Marriage
by
Tayari Jones

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Can a young marriage survive a long separation due to a prison sentence? How will they cope and what could it look like at the end? Roy and Celestial, a young black couple, must face these questions and additional challenges as they begin what they hope is a temporary, though daunting situation.

Roy and Celestial have just celebrated their first anniversary at the Piney Hotel in Louisiana when Roy is arrested for assaulting a woman at the hotel. Although falsely charged during a time of racial profiling, he’s convicted of rape and sentenced to twelve years at a prison in Jamison, Louisiana. Time can only tell if their marriage is strong enough.

Despite their love, Roy has a weakness for women, Celestial has a fiery temper and there are a few additional conflicts in the making. But before his arrest, they were managing and were on the road to success. Roy’s career was taking off and Celestial, an artist, was building a promising doll-making business. They were both proud of their achievements, especially Roy who grew up in Eloe, Louisiana, the son of hardworking parents. Celestial, from Atlanta, also came from humble beginnings, but her father, a high school teacher had recently hit pay dirt with a scientific invention. Both have strong ties to their families, but different ideas about parenthood, tied to their own experiences.

In the first year of Roy’s sentence, they exchange heartfelt letters and Celestial visits regularly, but over time, Celestial becomes more distant as she builds a life of her own and turns to her childhood friend, Andre. In prison, Roy can only count the months and years as he thinks about family, fatherhood and winning his appeal.

When Roy’s conviction is overturned after five years, Roy, Celestial and Andre must decide what their new lives will look like and what a marriage commitment means. Andre tells Celestial, “My parents’ divorce made it clear what kinds of raw deals are brokered at the altar. But right now, in America, marriage is the closest thing to what I want.” Celestial thinks of marriage differently, “like grafting a limb onto a tree trunk.” Roy wants to return to what he had.

I enjoyed the central conflict in this story, a reminder of the unfair suppositions and treatment of blacks in America, making it an important read. But I found the main characters unlikable, especially Roy for his transgressions and Celestial for her selfishness. Minor characters were more likable, but no one seemed to have good judgement. In my opinion, the story could have been more powerful if there had been at least one character readers could feel good about.

In addition, readers must accept Roy’s wrongful arrest and conviction, with no discussion of evidence, the investigation or trial. How could he have been convicted during an age of detailed crime scene investigations? I also had trouble believing the highly unlikely coincidence involving his cellmate.

Despite these comments, I enjoyed reading about Roy and Celestial’s college experiences at Morehouse and Spellman, how their relationship developed and the overwhelming problems they faced. I recommend An American Marriage to readers looking for a light story about real problems.

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Short story review from The Best American Short Stories 2006: “The Casual Car Pool” by Katherine Bell

Welcome to an occasional feature on Book Club Mom. Short reviews of short fiction. This selection comes from the 2006 edition of The Best American Short Stories, edited by Ann Patchett.

“The Casual Car Pool”
by

Katherine Bell

Rating: 4 out of 5.

When a parachute jumper snags his chute on the ropes of the Bay Bridge that leads to San Francisco, readers get a look inside the lives of three strangers in a car pool. The driver, Ian, has picked up his passengers in Oakland and they are stalled just near the end of the Yerba Buena tunnel. A woman named Hannah sits in the front seat and Julia, fifteen, sits in the back. In the beginning, they follow ridesharing’s unspoken rules. No conversation except maybe the traffic and weather.

Ian, Hannah and Julia may not say much, but their actions and their thoughts tell their back stories. Ian is married, but just that morning backed out of their driveway and thought, “If I wanted to, I could leave today and never go back.” Hannah holds in her lap a thick manilla envelope with sperm donor candidates. Annoyed that morning at her lover, Kate, she grabbed it before showing it to her. Julia has skipped school and is headed to meet a Mormon runaway named Isaac, where they will panhandle for money that she will hand over to him at the end of the day.

Meanwhile the jumper hangs and realized that “somehow, by jumping, he had stopped the morning.”

I’ve always liked how short stories reveal just a segment of people’s lives. Here, I like the details the author decided to include. By including only a few details, Bell shows how her characters act in that moment and with only a hint of what will happen after the story ends. Bell’s story touches on relationships and parenthood, privilege and need and the impact strangers can have on your thoughts.

About the Author (taken from the back of this 2006 edition and from Ploughshares):

“Katherine Bell grew up in Cardiff, Wales, and New Jersey. “The Casual Car Pool” was her second story published in Ploughshares. A graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, she currently works as online managing editor at Cook’s Illustrated, teaches writing at Harvard Extension School and Lesley University, and blogs for the Huffington Post. She is also working on her first novel and a book about quilting.

I highly recommend these collections of Best American Short Stories. I’ve never been disappointed by the stories I’ve read.

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Britt-Marie Was Here by Fredrik Backman

Britt-Marie Was Here
by
Fredrik Backman

Rating:

Genre: Fiction

Here’s a great feel-good story about a socially awkward woman in a life crisis, a struggling community and what happens when they find each other. Britt-Marie is sixty-one and has been misunderstood her entire life. She accommodates, cleans and keeps things in proper order, hoping that others will appreciate her efforts. It isn’t until she starts fresh and away from her cheating husband, in the financially dilapidated town of Borg, that she is finally noticed.

Borg is in economic distress. It’s a crazy move. Many have lost their jobs and the town is nearly empty when Britt-Marie arrives to be temporary caretaker of the recreation center. But there is a resiliency in the folks who have stayed in town. When an off-course soccer ball knocks her in the head, Britt-Marie soon learns what holds them together. She has come to the right place. Borg needs her.

In a few short weeks, as the people in town embrace her rigid personality, the real and endearing Britt-Marie emerges. Adding interest, Sven, the town’s policeman, is smitten and the beginnings of a sweet courtship may give Britt-Marie another reason to stay.

The plot is driven by an upcoming soccer match for the kids, a rag-tag team without a coach, and a position Britt-Marie soon takes on. She knows nothing about soccer, but that’s okay because everyone helps and she learns that the spirit of the game, as both a player and a fan, is what keeps them going.

This spirit helps the people in town cope with more than joblessness, however. Abuse, abandonment and tragedy have shaped many families, including three siblings, Vega, Omar and Sami, who become family to Britt-Marie. Between these kids and her new friendship with Sven, living in Borg may be the answer to her dreams. A heartbreaking turn forces Britt-Marie to make some difficult choices about staying where she’s finally needed or pursuing a greater dream.

I highly recommend this original story which brings out the best in many of Backman’s characters, even the ones who seem rough in the beginning.

Fans may also like My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She’s Sorry, in which Britt-Marie and her husband are characters.

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Today Will Be Different by Maria Semple

Today Will Be Different
by
Maria Semple

Rating:

Eleanor Flood’s life is teetering on a cliff, even if she doesn’t realize it. Everything is off-kilter, including her marriage and the graphic memoir she’s been writing for way too long. In addition, their third-grade son, Timby, is having stomach problems. But on this Seattle morning, Eleanor resolves that this day will be different: “Today I will be my best self, the person I’m capable of being.”

Despite her resolve, the day begins poorly. Her husband Joe, a highly respected hand surgeon, is face down at the kitchen table, arms splayed, and he doesn’t want to talk about it. Timby is in the bathroom putting on scads of makeup. What to do? She thinks she will find inner peace at her poetry lesson, but a call from Timby’s school summons her to the nurse’s office. Timby has another stomach ache.

The issue isn’t what is happening to Eleanor, it’s how she reacts. Questionable decisions and outrageous actions send her into a crazy, no logic, self-absorbed spiral. It’s a reader’s train wreck—impossible to look away.

At the core of Eleanor’s imbalance is a lonely and unhappy childhood, documented in a book of drawings entitled The Flood Girls, and presented to her sister Ivy. But something else is wrong. Joe is leading a secret life.

As Eleanor catapults herself into one disaster after another, the reader wonders where on earth this story is going. Chapters are varied, some are narrated by Eleanor, others jump back in time and are told in third-person, with The Flood Girls drawings in the middle. As the story gains momentum, the urge to read on is fueled entirely by a need to know what Joe is doing.

I don’t know what to call this book. Before I learned the truth about Joe, I liked that the characters were headed for disaster (more train-wreck reading) and thinking there would be a big and satisfying confrontation, but I was sorely disappointed with the finish, making me wonder just what Semple is trying to do with this book.

I also found Semple’s characters hard to like. Eleanor is selfish and quirky. Timby is unrealistic, Ivy is too shattered, etc. Joe’s character is the most human, but nothing fits together.

Despite these remarks, Today Will Be Different is an easy read, with some clever dialogue and a few entertaining outrageous scenes. Seattle readers will enjoy the references to various public places and football fans will appreciate Pete Carroll’s gum-chewing cameo in the book.

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The Awakening by Kate Chopin

the-awakening

The Awakening
by
Kate Chopin

Rating:

Here’s a book I’ve been meaning to read for a long time.  I knew that The Awakening, published in 1899, represented an important expression of feminist ideas, a controversial subject at the time.  I did not know that it is also a story about depression.

How to be happy inside oneself.  That is Edna Pontellier’s chief struggle.  The novel begins at Grand Isle, a vacation resort in the Gulf of Mexico, off the shores of New Orleans.  Edna is twenty-eight, married to Leonce, a successful businessman and they are summering with their young boys and other wealthy families.  It is during this summer that Edna begins to question her marriage, her role as a mother and the choices that led to them.  A close relationship with Robert Lebrun, the son of Grand Isle’s proprietor, teeters on the edge of infidelity.

Edna’s outward appearance suggests happiness and success, but her inner self has always known something darker.  She begins to feel that above all else, she will not be happy until she tends to this side.  Instead of merging her outward persona with her private identity, however, Edna’s two beings bang up against each other.

Chopin writes:

At a very early period she had apprehended instinctively the dual life – that outward existence which conforms, the inward life which questions.

Edna’s modern ideas are bound to shake up her life, during a time when women played submissive roles in marriage and society.  Women were expected to fit into the conventional scheme.  To sacrifice for their husbands and their children.  But Edna, in an argument with her friend Madame Ratignolle, states that she would never sacrifice herself for her children, or for anyone.

I would give up the unessential; I would give my money, I would give my life for my children; but I wouldn’t give myself.

From this point begins Edna’s awakening, and when Robert abruptly departs for Mexico, Edna suddenly feels that she has been denied his love.  Summer ends and nothing will be the same when the Pontelliers return to New Orleans.  Edna exhibits increasingly reckless and alarming behavior and it’s only a matter of time before something gives.

I’ll leave out the ending and simply state that its finish made me completely change my feelings about Edna’s character.  I was sympathetic and supportive at first, but her final actions make me think two things.  One, that Edna had a pretty good life before her awakening.  She had money, servants, and people to take care of her children.  While Leonce had certain expectations of Edna and her role as wife and mother, he took his role as husband and money-maker seriously.  It seems natural for him to think that she hasn’t held up her end of the deal.  My second opinion is that this first idea can’t apply to Edna’s character, because, above everything else, she is suffering from depression and no amount of logic or reason can change her thoughts.  How strange, however, to merge an awakening of feminist thinking with depression.  I’m left unsure of the story’s message.

Chopin’s book was not well received when it was first published, partly for its ideas and partly because of its racy subject matter.  It was nearly forgotten until the 1960s when Per Seyersted, a Norwegian scholar, rediscovered the book and its feminist message.

Kate Chopin was a well-known author of short stories for children and adults.  She married at nineteen and had six children.  She became a widow at age 32 and began her writing career.  Interestingly, her doctor suggested writing as an outlet to help her cope with sadness and depression.  (Source:  Wikipedia)

Click here to visit the Kate Chopin website for many interesting facts about the author’s life and her books.

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