This month’s choices came from the sphere of “Everyone’s talking about them, and I want to know why.” What Tayari Jones’ “An American Marriage” and A.J. Finn’s “The Woman in the Window” have in common is being published to great acclaim in 2018 and thematically looking at the nature of imprisonment—the former literal, the latter psychological.
I admit that comparing these works is not fair. While Jones has penned an elegant novel with meaningful themes that promises to become a modern classic that I will not forget, Finn has written a wild and fun but fleeting bestseller.
Jones’ powerful, subtle and heartbreaking fourth novel was an Oprah’s Book Club Selection, which ensured its well-deserved
success. The story focuses on how our discriminatory criminal justice system completely changes the trajectory of three generally likeable and innocent black protagonists.
Very early in their marriage, Roy and Celestial’s stay in a hotel results in his being wrongly accused and convicted of rape, then sentenced to a dozen years in prison.
During his incarceration, Celestial turns to her childhood friend Andre who has always been in love with her, and by the time Roy is released early—five years in—Celestial and Andre have become a couple.
The novel explores the effects of racial injustice and how incarceration, especially a false one, wreaks collateral damage on families and friends. It also looks at the meaning of love and marriage and whether emotional and/or sexual infidelity is justified under some circumstances.
Much of the novel consists of first-person narrative, with chapters alternating in the voices of the three main characters. We witness each of them struggle with the choices they make and the fact that they cannot change what they cannot control.
During Roy’s prison term, the format is epistolary, the couple’s letters to each other reveal a slow, painful erosion of the couple’s marriage.
In showing that each character operates from self-interest, Jones does not ask readers to choose a side. All three lives are upended and changed as a result of Roy’s situation. In prison, Roy becomes increasingly angry, but the experience also gives him strength and insight that serve him when he is released and must start from scratch. We might judge Celestial harshly for her faithlessness or Andre for taking advantage of the situation, but we also can empathize with their explanations of what propelled them to that place.
A.J. Finn’s book is one of those really easy to read page-turners with a film noir feel and ample twists and turns and things not what they seem. Finn is a pen name for Dan Mallory, a former William Morrow editor and reputed scam artist.
Anna Fox, the novel’s traumatized protagonist, has lived alone for a year, having separated from her husband and daughter and given up her child psychology practice. While the circumstances of the estrangement are not revealed until much later, Anna’s alcoholism, addiction to prescription drugs and severe agoraphobia are as plain as her preoccupation with classic black-and-white movies, spying on her neighbors, playing chess and advising fellow agoraphobics online.
Anna’s psychological healing is more compelling than the mystery, which arises when she witnesses through the lens of a camera an apparent murder in a neighbor’s window—a la Jimmy Stewart in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1954 film “Rear Window,” the author’s obvious inspiration.
Because of her multiple issues, Anna is the unreliable narrator supreme. Neither the minor characters nor the reader trust her. Even Anna herself is confused about whether what she sees and says is real—or from one of her movies.
Both these novels succeed in entertaining, but “An American Marriage”—despite the fact that “The Woman in the Window” is being made into a movie—merits far more respect and a longer shelf life.