This book popped up onto the scene what seemed like overnight! I had never really heard of it or, to be honest, any of Tayari’s previous works, and then all of a sudden it was everywhere. Maybe this has to do with it being an Oprah’s Book Club choice…maybe not. She also came to speak at my local indie bookstore which, unfortunately, I was out of town for. However, I knew this was one I was going to have to read sooner rather than later, after seeing all the great reviews (and because I’m a sucker for the popular new releases – I always want to know what everyone is talking about!).
“Since when did you need a right to feel the way you felt?”
Roy is a business executive and Celestial is an artist on the brink of a major break, young and in love, newly married and picture-perfect examples of the American Dream and the New South. However, when Roy is arrested and sentenced to 12 years in prison for a crime that Celestial knows he didn’t commit, things change…dramatically (obviously). Roy is dealing with all the stress of wrongful conviction and an adjustment to prison life while Celestial finds herself alone and adrift without her partner to help as she faces career changes and difficult personal decisions. Over the years, Celestial visits and writes to Roy less and less, while spending ever more time with her childhood friend and confidante, Andre. At the same time, Roy finds himself dealing with a number of familial discoveries and losses. When, after 5 years, Roy’s appeals are finally heard and his conviction overturned, securing release 7 years early, there is a major reckoning on the horizon.
Told from three perspectives, Roy, Celestial and Andre, this is an incredibly complex presentation of relationships – the most nuanced story of a love triangle I have ever read. I’m actually finding it quite difficult to write this review (which is odd – normally I have a hard time not writing too much) for reasons that I cannot quite put my finger on. This story is just so raw and real. Each of the characters have their own voices, expertly crafted voices, and each has an experience and point of view that is both totally frustrating and completely sympathetic. There are times, reading each character’s perspective, when I thought they were totally “in the right” and times when I wanted to punch them. Just when I’d finally decide that one or the other or the third would get the emotional and moral upper hand, something would happen that would undermine it all and we’d be back to square one. I actually loved that about this book. There is no clear favorite, no easy out, no “answer,” which is often (if not always) the way things are in real life. But that’s what’s making it so hard to write my thoughts. I mean Roy is innocent, so he seems to be the natural “most hard done by,” but some of his thoughts and actions (both before and after prison) make him clearly not the perfect husband who should receive all the sympathy. Andre seems just like a good guy, more or less (though one who should really have grown a pair and voiced his feelings way earlier and everything would have been avoided), but he also definitely took advantage of a terrible situation in a way that is not altogether upstanding. And Celestial gives off more mixed signals that I’ve ever seen before, but I mean she’s also been put in an impossible situation. And truly, throughout the years, each character undergoes so many changes (as would be expected) but circumstances make it impossible to face all that in the “normal” way. So, things happen and rifts occur. It’s just all so thorny and handled so skillfully. GAH.
(Side note: the ending does have a “finite” decision made – no spoilers – but if you are not a fan of an open-ended ending, even though the rest of the book is all grey space, the end does finally give you some black and white. And after such a soul-baring type book as this one is, the solid conclusion, of a primarily happy nature, is a huge relief.)
In addition to this amazing exploration of difficult circumstances and relationships, of what makes love and marriage successful, there is a lot of knowledgeable and insightful critique of social, legal and political climate in the current day US. A variety of black familial situations are represented, from the proverbial “pulled up by your own bootstraps” to being born into security/financial privilege, Tayari does a wonderful job representing many truths and the tension that lives between them. And she does it all while making it clear that, while within the black reality of today there are many variations, they are all, at any time, subject to the sudden loss/change that is unique to that population for no reason other than generations of deeply rooted prejudice and discrimination.
This is one of those novels where it’s almost too easy to put yourself into the characters’ shoes…and that’s what makes it such an engaging read. I imagined myself as Celestial, young and facing 12 years alone while my husband serves time for something he is innocent of (and even if he was guilty…I’m sure many of the reactions/developments would be the same). I imagined myself in Andre’s shoes, with an “open” path to something I have wanted for years. I imagined myself in Roy’s shoes, locked away from everyone/thing I loved while they moved on without me, not knowing where I stood. Can I say I would truly act differently from any of them? And if I wouldn’t have, couldn’t have, how does that affect my reading experiences for each of their less than perfect characters? That’s the real power behind this novel. And it really was something special. I see the hype and I call it well deserved.
I’ve seen a lot of people who have reviewed this declaring themselves for “Team Roy” or “Team Andre.” I do have a preference (I call shenanigans if you finish this book without one), but I believe it would have been the same whether the events of this book had happened or not – I think there is just one of the two who’s personality would just plain fit better with mine. Maybe I’m fooling myself? Regardless, I’m Team Andre (with a hopeful heart that Roy would find contentment as well – I’ve always been a softie). If you’ve read this, what Team are you?