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book review

Author Tayari Jones.Nina Subin

Most of us would read anything Oprah told us to, and with good reason: the 78 titles in her Book Club provide incredible examples of storytelling, ranging in theme and in genre, while usually packing an emotional wallop.

It's hard to remember a time without the presence of an Oprah-approved novel, memoir, or miscellaneous non-fiction offering. And it's harder still to imagine her choosing something that wasn't pertinent, timely, or important. Ultimately, Oprah – a voice of reason and perspective in our dark and troubled times – wouldn't lead us astray. And that's why her latest Book Club induction, Tayari Jones's An American Marriage, makes for a particularly solid choice, especially since at first glance the title suggests a straight-forward love story (or something similar) instead of the embodiment of what marriage tends to be: messy.

In 2018, the idea of what marriage is and what it means for women has shifted dramatically from the ideology upheld throughout most of the 20th century. Now, marriage (or lack thereof) isn't meant to define a woman's worth. It isn't built on the acquisition of familial wealth or premised on obeying one's husband and giving him kids within the confines of an irreversible partnership. Instead, it's a choice – a public declaration of a love that might last forever or come to a quick end. And as adults, we understand that love can evolve, shapeshift and disappear entirely, replaced by the comfort of companionship or the relief that something that wasn't working has finally come to a close. "Marriage" is anything but straightforward. Using "American" as a descriptor creates even more complications.

In 2018, "American" carries merciless weight, bogged down not only by the country's politics, but by the legacy of the nation as a whole. The "American dream" has finally morphed from a capitalist ideology into, well, a nightmare. Stick "American" onto the front of anything now and it gets complicated, even almost sinister.

In this case, An American Marriage is very complicated, and that's what makes it so outstanding. To start, Jones doesn't waste any time: Quickly, we learn that Celestial and Roy are a black couple who've been married a year and are currently living their dream in Atlanta. We learn that she's an artist, that he's an executive and that their future is promising, exciting and full of hope. But then Roy is accused and convicted of a crime he didn't commit, and that future is harpooned by the realities of wrongful conviction, of deep-seated and systemic racism, and of the effects of the American prison system. Celestial is left to try and hold together a life that had only just begun, while Roy is left to exist by himself as time slowly passes. A fact made even more difficult as Roy's conviction is overturned and Celestial is forced to question whether to forge a new future or try and salvage what she and Roy had only just begun to build.

It is a story so rich it seems impossible to discuss in a single review. It boasts the kind of complexities that are a jumping-off point for bigger, necessary conversations. Especially since Jones's characters are so alive, so real and more complex than actual people you meet in real life. They're interesting, flawed and impossible to forget even weeks after finishing their story. Which, for the record, will break your heart, make you angry, frustrate you and leave you desperate to reunite with Roy and Celestial after you leave them. And Oprah wants to take you there.

And we should let her. Since the Book Club's inception, Oprah's literary endorsements have fuelled book sales to the tune of 55 million additional copies sold. And that not only boosts sales figures for the authors she stands behind, but it serves to bring readers into wide-ranging worlds they might otherwise not be familiar with. Over the past few years, Oprah's endorsed books by Charles Dickens, Cheryl Strayed, Colson Whitehead, Glennon Doyle, and even (very controversially) Jonathan Franzen. So, as Oprah's books help create livelier and more realistic pictures of different sects of the world, readers – and female readers in particular – are given contexts and pictures that help shed more light on perspectives they might not be privy to.

Not that Tayari Jones's writing needs any endorsements outside of her own resume. A Black author of three previous novels (including the highly regarded Silver Sparrow), she's racked up numerous literary awards and serves on the MFA faculty at Rutgers-Newark. All of that makes her inclusion into Oprah's Book Club feel like a collaboration: thanks to Oprah, An American Marriage will be introduced to book clubs and reading groups built entirely on Winfrey's recommendations. And thanks to Jones, Oprah's Book Club will maintain its legacy of boasting sensational, relevant and exciting work.

Which is the fuel for the best kind of book club, clearly. (Or so I assume, because I like to read by myself and shout reactions to nobody in particular.) It's easy to joke about simply reading whatever it is Oprah suggests, but we've also learned through her Golden Globes speech back in January that her power and influence currently transcends even the highest reaches of government. Through Winfrey's speeches, her network, her acting roles and her recommendations, the actor/host/curator's reach is wide and unparalleled – and so strong that even the President Trump felt compelled to taunt her via Twitter only a few weeks back. So by recommending a book such as An American Marriage (and by the follow-up questions on her website), she knew she would be helping us redefine the notions of marriage, of love, of forgiveness and of trying to hold together something that's been broken. And perhaps even more importantly, she knew she was helping to relay a story that is as necessary as it is American: very.

Anne T. Donahue is the author of Nobody Cares, to be published in September.

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