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.
Author: Tayari Jones
“There should be a word for this, the way it feels to steal something that’s already yours.”
Wow. There is so, so much to unpack from this book. It was an incredibly poignant and purposefully uncomfortable look at so many things—marriage, love, parenting, friendship, race, manhood. I will be thinking about this one for a long time.
“I thought of Walter again. ‘Six or twelve,’ he sometimes said when he was depressed, which wasn’t all the time but often enough that I recognized a blue mood when it was settling in. ‘That’s your fate as a black man. Carried by six or judged by twelve.’”
The story flips between three perspectives: Roy’s, his wife Celestial’s, and, later, her best friend Andre’s. The book begins with Roy and Celestial visiting his parents, about a year and a half into their marriage. They have a tumultuous marriage, one full of passionate arguments but also passionate make-ups. Then a woman is raped, and she’s convinced that Roy is the man who raped her. But he is innocent—Celestial knows that, because she was with him the entire night. Unfortunately, he is convicted and wrongfully sent to jail.
The rest of the book follows their relationship during his imprisonment. At first, there are promises made in the throes of heartbreak. Then there is distance and difficulty.
“Marriage is like grafting a limb onto a tree trunk. You have the limb, freshly sliced, dripping sap, and smelling of springtime, and then you have the mother tree stripped of her protective bark, gouged and ready to receive this new addition. Some years ago, my father performed this surgery on a dogwood tree in the side yard. He tried a pink-blooming limb stolen from the woods to my mother’s white-blooming tree from a nursery lot. It took yards of burlap and twine and two years for the plants to join. Even now, all these years later, there’s something not quite natural about the tree, even in its amazing two-tone glory.”
I really didn’t like either Roy or Celestial—imperfect characters are one thing, but they are both kind of terrible people. But this makes the book even better. There are also a lot of cultures that felt foreign to me, as I am far removed from all of them: being black, being black in the South, being a black man, being a black woman. This book provided yet another opportunity for me to imagine myself in someone else’s shoes and be moved by how uncomfortable I felt.
I read this as part of a book club, and I still can’t believe how much of our meet-up we spent talking about (aka judging) Celestial. All of us were women, and we were still focusing the majority of our judgment on the woman in the story. The worst part is I didn’t even realize it until the meet-up was almost over.