An American Marriage
By Tayari Jones. (Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 308 pages, $26.95.)
This beautiful, sad novel is about so many big things — love, friendship, loyalty, betrayal, heartbreak, healing, family, racism, endurance and transcendence. But all of that is secondary to the story at its core. Gritty at times, yet shot through with an almost mythic quality, it is about three flawed but endearing young people — happy, successful Atlanta newlyweds Roy and Celestial, and their longtime friend and neighbor Andre.
Their worlds are shattered when Roy, who is black, is falsely accused of rape by a white woman who has him mixed up with someone else. He is convicted and sentenced to 12 years in prison. When Roy is exonerated after five years, he finds that Celestial and Andre have become a couple. The trio’s story is largely told in heart-rending letters and brief narratives by various characters.
This is a complex novel that goes well beyond the plot elements of infidelity and racism to explore the intricacies of family and romantic relationships in modern America. As the poet Claudia Rankine says in its epigraph, “What happens to you doesn’t belong to you. … It’s not yours. Not yours only.” Jones creates a rich and fraught world not just with the words she uses, but with those she doesn’t. One flaw — we are never told the full forensics of why Roy was convicted, and despite the painful truth that many a black man has been falsely imprisoned, it would have been good to understand that fully. Still, this is a drama, not a mystery, and a wrenching and fine one, at that.
You Were There Before My Eyes
By Maria Riva. (Pegasus Books, 420 pages, $25.95.)
“You Were There Before My Eyes,” the first novel by Maria Riva, follows the life of Giovanna, a young Italian woman who feels stifled in her small village and escapes to the United States through marriage in the early part of the 20th century. This epic highlights the experiences of newcomers to America at that time, as Giovanna (who changes her name to Jane) learns the language, builds friendships, grows wiser and becomes a mother in Detroit, where her Italian husband (Giovanni-cum-John) works in the Ford factories.
The married couple live together in a boardinghouse run by a German Jew — along with a virtual United Nations of other Ford employees, who mostly revere their boss as a brilliant economist and revolutionary. A little too much parlor talk is spent detailing the work at the factories. After dinner, for instance, one of the men comes out with this snoozer: “It’s our standardization of parts that’s the key — without that, no newfangled idea of production would stand a chance!”
Fortunately, Jane is a compelling companion through the 400-plus pages. Her relationship with the nurturing Hannah, the boardinghouse proprietor, keeps the story rolling through the years. It culminates in World War II, when the evils of Hitler and Mussolini find a place in the story and make for a somber ending.
Riva is a New York Times bestselling author of nonfiction, so a reader could pick up this novel with high hopes. It doesn’t take long to realize that her writing style is not necessarily what sent buyers to the bookstores. She is the daughter of Marlene Dietrich, and her bestselling book is “Marlene Dietrich: The Life,” so the cult of celebrity rang up sales, I suppose.
This novel’s surplus of characters bogs down the story, and Riva sometimes favors lesson-giving over storytelling. The story is longer than it should be, with too many characters to track. Still, it offers fascinating details of Ford and his factories and a soulful portrait of a melting pot of a community, all while following the life of Jane, who is brave, determined and adventurous, as all immigrants must be.