“But home isn’t where you land; home is where you launch.” 4
Celestial Davenport and Roy Hamilton are newlyweds, living in Atlanta and on the cusp of an exciting life. Part of the city’s African-American upper-class, Celestial is an artist whose work is starting to get noticed, and Roy is an energetic, entrepreneurial man who believes he knows how to make her a success. While their marriage is passionate, it is also not always solid: Roy struggles to let go of his playboy past, and Celestial resists starting a family, worried if Roy strays she will end up a single mother…a stereotype she refuses to become.
While traveling from Atlanta to Roy’s hometown in rural Louisiana, the couple — perhaps with a sense of supernatural premonition — fights about the differences in their upbringing and whether or not those differences are causing problems between them. Roy and his family fought long and hard to get him out of their small town and into Spelman. Roy sees his material success as fragile and feels compelled to demonstrate their wealth in order to make it seem real. Celestial was raised in Atlanta with professional parents who are millionaires; she does not feel she has as much to prove and often bristles at Roy’s need for “flash.”
While in Roy’s small Louisiana home town, Roy is accused of the rape of a white woman and thrown in jail. Celestial’s protests that she was with Roy the entire night and he is innocent fall of deaf ears. The police, judge, and jury see a black man and nothing else. His race, not his actions, determine his guilt. Roy is found guilty and sentenced to 12-years in prison.
Shocked and terrified, the couple clings to hope that this miscarriage of justice will be reversed, but they are wrong. Not one single person in the system cares if Roy is innocent.
“Sleeping by myself didn’t kill me then and will not kill me now. But this is what loss has taught me of love. Our house isn’t simply empty, our home has been emptied. Love makes a place in your life, it makes a place in your bed. Invisibly, it makes a place in your body, rerouting all of your blood vessels, throbbing right alongside your heart. When it’s gone, nothing is whole again. ” 41
In the early days of his incarceration, Celestial and Roy fight for his release and remain committed to saving him. Soon, however, their marriage begins to show cracks. Celestial is weighted down with this enormous grief and worries she cannot cope. “Their is still rice in my hair,” she laments. Roy needs so much from her — reassurance, love, money, attention, visits — and she is overwhelmed by the demands of this new reality. The magic and passion of their marriage fades from her mind, replaced only by the horrific reality of her husband being in jail.
“The chilly hindsight is what exposes the how and why of something that once seemed supernatural. It’s the magician’s manual that shows you how the tricks are done, not with sorcery but with careful cues and mysterious devices.” 111
As Roy’s life grows bleaker and bleaker, Celestial’s star rises. Her art begins to get noticed, her shop (which Roy once envisioned) thrives, and her heart strays to another man.
Then, in the days before Christmas, Roy’s appeal is granted, his conviction overturned and he is coming home. Stripped of everything: his future, his money, his career, his dignity, and five years of his life; Roy has only Celestial. But their marriage has been only one of fact for so long, the reality is that his wife has moved on without him and he is terrified that he will find their is no longer room for him in her life.
Jones has crafted a beautiful, haunting, complex tale that explores the challenges of modern African-American’s in America face as well as the challenges of a marriage tested before it is ready. A truly outstanding novel, as gorgeous as it is eye-opening.
“Yesterday I sat under the hickory tree in the front yard. It’s the only place where I find rest and just feel fine. I know fine isn’t a lot, but it’s rare for me these days. Even when I am happy, there is something in between me and whatever good news comes my way. It’s like eating a butterscotch still sealed in the wrapper. The tree is untouched by whatever worries we humans fret over. I think about how it was here before I was born and it will be here after we’re all gone. Maybe this should make me sad, but it doesn’t.” 80