Published by Algonquin Books on February 6th 2018
Newlyweds Celestial and Roy are the embodiment of both the American Dream and the New South. He is a young executive, and she is an artist on the brink of an exciting career. But as they settle into the routine of their life together, they are ripped apart by circumstances neither could have imagined. Roy is arrested and sentenced to twelve years for a crime Celestial knows he didn’t commit. Though fiercely independent, Celestial finds herself bereft and unmoored, taking comfort in Andre, her childhood friend, and best man at their wedding. As Roy’s time in prison passes, she is unable to hold on to the love that has been her center. After five years, Roy’s conviction is suddenly overturned, and he returns to Atlanta ready to resume their life together.
I will never forget the day that my friend S.C. asked if I’d ever read Tayari Jones. “She’s an Atlanta author; I think you’d like her.” Of course, I hadn’t read her, so I started with her debut, Leaving Atlanta, an emotionally gripping, attention grabbing tale about the Atlanta Child Murders. I moved on to The Untelling, which was so good that I couldn’t WAIT until Silver Sparrow was released. I snatched it up on the day of publication and so happily handed it over to Ms. Jones for her to sign it when she came to Atlanta. It remains my favorite of her novels.
But it has been YEARS since she published a full novel, and one misses the good words when there is such a dearth in black fiction. I was overjoyed to hear she had begun working on a new novel, and it took some time, but I want to offer my thanks to the publisher for an advanced copy because I just couldn’t wait one more second to dig into this book!
As I always say, I love when I open a book and I am instantly transported into that world, that time. I feel like a fly on the wall, listening to characters talk, watching the action, interpreting and rationalizing. The beginning chapters of this book set the scene– Celestial and Roy, newly married, in that ‘newly married’ kind of bliss, still sort of figuring each other out and trying to manage the in-law relationship as well. On a trip to visit Roy’s parents, they decide to stay at a hotel instead of a room at the house where they’d normally stay. Roy has special plans, he wants to show Celestial a special spot.
I can’t help but think that if Roy hadn’t been so ambitious with his plans, the story would have a different ending. But it doesn’t. Even in the New South, old thinking exists. A claim against a black man, true or not, can send that man’s life into a tailspin. Celestial finds herself alone– not a divorcee and not a widow. A married woman whose husband is incarcerated for a crime he did not commit, who is expected to be locked away for quite some time.
There are a few other dynamics that add to the dramatic tension and held my rapt attention. Roy’s family structure, for one. Celestial and Roy’s relationship for another. I felt that it wasn’t strong enough to endure this kind of challenge and pressure. They’d only lived the blissful, dreamy part of love together. They hadn’t been through the trial and tribulation of having to live apart, yet committed to one another. And as much as Roy expected Celestial to be ‘ride or die’ for him, I also felt, through the pages, her slipping away from him, unable to give him the loyalty he longed for and felt, whether or not it was wrong, that he deserved.
Holy drama, and scandal and tension, Batman. At a certain point, things come to an emotional and physical head and I really wondered how things were going to settle out. I think one of my favorite parts of the book is the letters. They let the story play out, in the words of Roy and Celeste, even though they couldn’t be in the same room. Ms. Jones recently shared a piece about how technology can affect and script communication between characters; sometimes a novel has to be set in a time and a place that makes communication difficult. At one point in the book, there’s no way for one character to contact the other, leading one to walk right into a trap, per se… the tension that that situation built was palpable and effective.
I think this book has multiple levels and conversation/talking points. Its many facets and depths would be great for a book club discussion. Ms. Jones did a fantastic job with this novel. Like Silver Sparrow, I can see myself reading it again and again, just for the initial enjoyment I felt at reading her words.
This author will be taking this book on tour and I can’t wait to see her in Atlanta on February 9th!