I am often asked how I choose our book club selections. Do members make recommendations? Do I favor any genres? Members do make recommendations, but we try to find titles for which I can get a lot of copies through the library – enough so that we could perhaps catch the attention of new members to bring new perspectives to our discussions, enough copies in large print and in audio versions for different needs. I try to make sure I choose books by female and male authors equally throughout the year, including at least one non-fiction book. I think mysteries and historical fiction tend to be popular, but we also like to learn and be challenged. Some members don’t finish a book if they don’t like it, others read our selections like homework.
I chose An American Marriage by Tayari Jones for our February selection because the book came highly recommended, longlisted for the National Book Award, winner of the 2019 NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Literary Work in Fiction, winner of the 2019 Women’s Prize for fiction, and the February 2018 Oprah’s Book Club 2.0 selection. February is also African-American Heritage month and it’s Valentine’s Day week!
Our discussion got off to a bit of a rocky start. We had been discussing movies and the Oscar winners when we seamlessly slid into our book, with mixed reviews. Different. Not interesting. Liked. Since none of our members are black, I shared that one of my coworkers felt that the story captured well the African-American woman’s sense of being subjugated to black men. The subjects of innocent incarceration, prison in general, infidelity, abortion, and women’s rights are huge and we rambled.
So, earlier than usual, we referred to the publisher’s discussion questions to give us direction, starting with the appropriateness of the title. Which marriage? Several of us seemed to think that the story was primarily about Roy. And he was unfaithful during the short marriage, so if Celestial had been incarcerated . . . He didn’t even wait when he wanted to save his marriage. Andre was sweet. We didn’t like Roy or Celestial much. I think we liked Big Roy and Olive. What did the tree Roy attacked represent? Was Roy attacking Celestial indirectly? Why did she go into the house and watch Roy beat up Andre? Why did she have the abortion so quickly? Was the author just proselytizing? Why didn’t they communicate better? Do we communicate any better in our own lives?
One of us had worked in a prison in Utah and felt that it was highly unusual for an innocent person to be in prison. She understood Celestial’s unwillingness to be treated like the majority of women who visited, smuggling in drugs made to look like M&Ms or who knows what. We believed in Roy’s innocence and one of us said she had expected me to bring pears for our snack. If only I had thought to bring pears and M&Ms!
We ended by discussing the writing. We had mixed opinions here, too. Well-written, with interesting metaphors, yet we wondered if the author wasn’t trying too hard. One of us had read reader reviews and said that the book seemed to be rated either a five or a two – they either hated it or loved it. My impression is that if you averaged our responses, we would rate the book a three. One of us ended by reading the following excerpt: “Human emotion is beyond comprehension, smooth and uninterrupted, like an orb made of blown glass.” What does that mean? Our hour was up. But the discussion doesn’t have to stop here. What do you think?
- Other Works discussed:
- Just Mercy (1919) film and book by Bryan Stevenson