Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead book cover

Tayari Jones is unequivocal in her belief that mass incarceration, with its attendant state violence, is the “most pressing civil rights issue of our day.” Yet her latest novel, An American Marriage, makes an unjust incarceration the backdrop for a nuanced interrogation of another issue of social freedom and equality: a wife’s right to pursue her own desires and fulfill her aspirations independently of her husband.

Celestial is an artist on the cusp of critical and commercial success at the same time that her husband is wrongly convicted and sentenced to 12 years in the Louisiana State Penitentiary. She can’t right the wrong, so her choice becomes whether or not to become a monument to his suffering.

Jones’ thoughtful rendering of the tension between what Celestial owes Roy and what she owes herself is riveting. With sensitivity and power, she pits duty against desire in a rich tapestry of recollections and letters that recount their romance, separation, and explosive reunion.

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