literary fiction

An American Marriage by Chatti Brown

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AUTHOR: TAYARI JONES
PUB DATE: FEBRUARY 6, 2018
PUBLISHER: ALGONQUIN BOOKS OF CHAPEL HILL

Much of life is timing and circumstance, I see that now.

Summary:

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.

My Thoughts:

Some of you know that TJ and I were on a podcast called THE LOVE LOVE LOVE by Yan Palmer, an insightful podcast that speaks on relationships and intimacy. If you're a listener of it, An American Marriage will breathe even more life (and racial diversity) on the subject of marriage and its innate fragility-what holds it and what shatters it. The book is written in parts epistolary (letter form), and first person narrative via Roy, Celestial and Andre, Celestial’s best friend friend and Roy's college friend. Tayari Jones' masterful writing takes us into their intimate thoughts- first longing, then resentment, and later making peace with the outcome.

I know you’re innocent, there is not one doubt in my mind, but I also know that you’re not here.

“Our house isn’t simply empty, our home has been emptied,” Celestial writes to Roy in her first letter to him in prison. Their intimate letters reveal many backstories, family secrets, and feelings they harbored from one another. It also reveals what it is like to be a black man wrongfully incarcerated and the hopelessness of those who love him. Roy and Celestial became real people, complex so that in one breath I'm emphasizing with them and the next, I'm angry by their decision. Their story was believable that I forgot they were fictional characters. I read this in one swoop and I suggest you do too because I love it and want to discuss the ending with you.

I had the opportunity to hear Tayari Jones speak and I can tell you she is a delight. She was eloquent, funny, and kind (she called me back to take a photo when I hurriedly left so not to take anymore of her time). During her talk, she spoke in great length about the title of the book, urging us to think about what we perceive as the "norm." Had the story been about a white couple, the question wouldn't have been raised but because it is about a black couple, simply writing American without the hyphen raises a few eyebrows. When she was talking about this, I remembered a specific time while living in Cambodia as an expat. Some White-American travelers were in town and TJ was talking with them when I heard him say, "Well no, Chatti is from California. She's Cambodian-American." The man who had asked, turned to me with a puzzled look and inquired, "Well which one of your parents is American?" in which I smoothly replied, "Both of them" because it was the truth but also because I knew what he was really digging for and I wasn't going to give it to him. And so his puzzled look remained because when he said "American" he had meant, "White" and therefore, further confused by my answer because I did not look like a multiracial person. For Tayari Jones to claim this title is a proud moment for me because we are Americans and while our families didn't necessarily come here by choice, this is our home too.

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Everything Here is Beautiful by Chatti Brown

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Being so early in the year, I find this quite bold to say but Everything Here is Beautiful is my favorite book of 2018! I read it without knowing too much of the plot, which I suggest you do too. Hint: skip the Goodreads synopsis. I honestly think it gives away too much. Just pick it up and dive right in. You'll thank me later. The story is about Chinese-American siblings, Miranda and Lucia - the first older and responsible, the latter a free-spirit and suffering from schizophrenia. Knowing little about the story allowed me to go into it without any expectations. It is a story that is heavy, rich and often times uncomfortable to read. As little as we talk about mental illnesses, we talk even less about Asian-Americans living with them. I see this book as a good stepping stone in beginning this crucial discussion. I have a family member with a mental illness and I have been looking so long for a book that made me feel not so alone.  

The story is told in multiple perspectives, sometimes in third person, other times in first person. It shouldn't work but it does, giving you a 360 degree look at how mental illness affects not only the person but those close to them. And when it is Lucia's turn to speak about her actions, you get an intimate portrait of a person struggling to reined in her "serpents." Lee does it with such sensitivity that my heart ached for Lucia. I was taken through an array of emotions, jumping from empathizing with the characters one minute to feeling frustrated by them the next. And I love that. It's what I look forward to in a book- characters so complex and multilayered that you can imagine them walking down your street.

...they said I “suffer” from schizoaffective disorder. That’s like the sampler plate of diagnoses, Best of Everything. But I don’t want to suffer. I want to live
— Lucia in Everything Here Is Beautiful

While this book is about sisterly bond, it also touches on immigration, parenthood, cultural misunderstandings, and interracial relationships. I felt connected, inspired, and sadden by the characters' choices. I plunged into the book, reading into the early morning, eager to see where the characters ended up. There was a whole section where I felt extremely anxious and mad. I can't tell you which section- you’ll have to read the book so we can compare notes. This book is so good it shook me when it was over and I hated saying goodbye. All the stars!

Side note:  This may sound weird but if you’re planning a literary dinner party, this book mentions a lot of food and would be the perfect inspiration. 

*Thank you Pamela Dorman Books (Penguin Group Viking) for the galley in exchange for an honest review.