An American Marriage by Tayari Jones

Have you ever read or listened to a book that leaves you questioning what you would do if you were thrust into a similar situation? A previous Oprah’s Book Club pick, An American Marriage, left me feeling bereft as the situation presented is entirely plausible. This book’s discussion of how while you may control some aspects of your life, outside forces have the power to sweep in and destroy your best laid plans shook me as I watched the characters’ lives play out.

An American Marriage by Tayari Jones follows the lives of Celestial and Roy from newlyweds and beyond. Roy is a young executive, while Celestial is a burgeoning artist just starting out on a new career path. Roy works hard so that Celestial can grow her art. Just married, the two are working on starting their new life together, getting to know each other’s families more, and settling into what they hope will be a long, happy life together.

Stuck in a hotel one night, circumstances converge to tear Celestial and Roy’s happy life to shreds. Roy is arrested and sentenced to twelve years in prison. Celestial knows it’s not possible that Roy committed the crime for which he was arrested. All through his trial, Celestial and Roy do not believe that there is any way Roy will be found guilty, but lo and behold, he is sentenced to twelve years. Their lives as they once knew them are over.

Celestial was independent before Roy came along with a fierce independent streak that ran rampant throughout their marriage. After Roy goes to jail, Celestial finds it hard to cope and is left at a loss. As a result, she turns to her best friend Andre. Andre was the best man at her and Roy’s wedding and grew up alongside Celestial. Their fierce and close bond sometimes annoys Roy as he feels they are too close to each other. The longer Roy is in prison, the worse he and Celestial’s relationship grows. Communicating through letters and seldom visits, Celestial realizes that the love that once held her and Roy together has begun to dissolve. Celestial turns to Andre more and more as the love disappears and her relationship with Roy shifts.

Celestial and Roy’s new normal is again changed five years into Roy’s sentence. After five years, Roy’s conviction is overturned! He is overjoyed to be released and see Celestial again. He heads to Atlanta ready to slip back into his previous life with Celestial. Little does he know that everything he had before prison has changed and everything he thinks he has has slipped away. This novel is a fascinating look at how each characters’ actions are intertwined, yet outside forces have a way of changing best laid plans. As I read this book, I kept thinking, ‘well just because you want it, doesn’t mean you’re going to get it’. Life will happen however it wants.


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You Belong to Me by Colin Harrison

I tried expanding out of my comfort zone to read a nonfiction book and quickly fell asleep. Perhaps I shouldn’t have started it before I went to bed… As a result, the next day, I turned to the next book on my list, a suspenseful thriller by Colin Harrison called You Belong to Me. This book started out slow for me, but quickly picked up. If you decide to read it, I urge you to stick with it. This piece of literary fiction tells the tale of old maps, immigration troubles, lost loves, hit men, obsession, murder, and betrayal. I loved it. It was riveting.

Paul Reeves works as an immigration lawyer, a fairly successful one at that. His boutique firm handles cases for famous people, successful businessmen, and large companies working with foreign nationals. Paul may like his job, but his real love is maps. His passion is collecting old maps of New York. Seeing the city change throughout the years through a print record gives him chills. As he’s walking the streets or looking at his maps, he can see, in his mind’s eye, New York growing, changing, and morphing into the city that he lives in today. Paul can frequently be found at auctions throughout the city bidding on different New York maps. He attends an auction one afternoon with his neighbor Jennifer Mehraz. Jennifer is the beautiful young wife of an Iranian financier-lawyer, a man who has the best things in life and knows what he wants. Jennifer’s husband knows how to complete deals and expects his life to keep going the way that it is. Halfway through the auction, a man in soldier fatigues appears and Jennifer’s entire demeanor changes. She abandons Paul and takes off with this mystery man.

This man who showed up out of the blue to see Jennifer is a long-lost love from her past, from when she used to live in Pennsylvania. His arrival sets off a frightening chain of events that entangles Paul, Jennifer, her husband, the mystery man, and a wide variety of other people in a messy dangerous game. Jennifer, remaining somewhat tight-lipped about this mystery man, leaves those close to her very confused as they try to figure out just who he is and how they are connected. Her husband, being Iranian and very important in his chosen work field, feels her dalliance with this mystery man as a major embarrassment and wants the whole situation to disappear, no matter the consequences nor the expense.

Paul has more than Jennifer and her possessive husband to deal with though. He is desperate to get his hands on one of the world’s rarest and most sought after maps. Paul thought it was out of his reach until he was directly contacted by the seller with an offer for him to buy it. Before he can put in his offer, another buyer swoops in and buys it right from under Paul. He’s furious about this incident and is desperate to figure out who this mysterious buyer is. Paul will do anything to get that precious map into his possession, especially since it was promised to him and therefore should belong to him.

I enjoyed this book, even though it took me a few chapters to get hooked. The characters are very compelling and developed well. There are multiple story lines throughout this book that kept me hooked while I was reading. Every character has their own personal problems to work through, but they each remain entangled together. I enjoyed watching each character’s story grow as the plot developed.  Harrison has written several older books that I’m hoping are just as riveting as You Belong to Me was. I’ll let you know!

This is How You Lose Her by Junot Diaz

This is How you Lose HerPulitzer Prize winning author, Junot Díaz writes with a kind of swagger and cool that makes it pretty hard to believe that he’s a creative writing professor at MIT.  Having recently finished reading his third published book, a collection of short stories called This is How You Lose Her, I am convinced that he knows every dirty word in English and Spanish.  Particularly if the words are referencing female anatomy.  So be warned, this is not the novel for anyone offended by salty and sexual language.

But if you can get beyond that, I can’t recommend this book enough. Díaz, himself a Dominican immigrant, tells stories about immigrants that help create a full picture of why someone is who they are. He shows that machismo is often a projection due to a lack of respect, and poor behavior isn’t something to be excused, but it can sometimes be explained. This is never more true than in his semi-autobiographical character, Yunior, the protagonist of most of this collection.

Readers may have met Yunior in Díaz’s The Brief Life of Oscar Wao (winner of the aforementioned Pulitzer) or in his first published collection of short stories, Drown, but I met Yunior for the first time after he cheated on Magda in This is How You Lose Her.  As he cheats his way through many of these short stories — and continues to imprison himself in grief and regret following the discovery of his transgressions — Yunior’s story becomes less about each individual relationship and more about how Yunior’s relationships reflect his own self-image and cultural identity.  The most powerful passages in the novel occur in his home, when we meet his family and see the effects of his father and brother’s infidelity on the family. Equally funny and frustrating, Díaz has written a complicated novel that feels both universal and unique.