Yes, "An American Marriage" is about marriage and it is about America, but it really concerns so much more...

"An American Marriage," by Tayari Jones. Algonquin Books. 308 pages. $26.95.

In this ironically titled novel, Tayari Jones explores issues of race, class, and fidelity.

Yes, "An American Marriage" is about marriage and it is about America, but it really concerns so much more: what it means to be a black man today, what we owe our friends, lovers and spouses, and why justice is sometimes elusive.

Roy Othaniel Hamilton is a contemporary Horatio Alger. He's gotten a good education, at Morehouse College, married a successful artist, and made a good life for himself in Atlanta.

But the American dream quickly turns sour. While visiting his hometown of Eloe, Louisiana, Roy is accused of raping a woman in the motel where he's staying with his wife. He is convicted and incarcerated, just another black man left to molder in a Southern prison.

There's enough in the setup to warrant our interest. Roy has done everything right, yet still he stands accused. His wife, Celestial, returns to Atlanta to pick up the pieces of her life.

Although she had been reluctant to start a family, Celestial now pours all of her energy into her doll-making business. Dubbed poupees by her husband, the dolls resemble real babies; each has unique, sometimes homely features.

It's not long before Celestial's letters grow shorter, her prison visits more infrequent. No one is surprised when she takes up with her childhood friend and neighbor, Andre.

In prison, Roy tries to make sense of his wife's growing distance. He falls under the protection of an older man with whom he may have a vital connection.

As absorbing as the plot is, the novel's strength lies in its voices. It is told in alternating first person, giving Roy, Celestial and Andre turns to tell their sides of the story.

The book, however, belongs to Roy. His voice grips us from the first page, and although we are never quite sure if he is a reliable narrator, we are rooting for him nonetheless.

"Six or twelve," proclaims Roy's cellmate, Walter. "That's your fate as a black man. Carried by six or judged by twelve."

The reader is hoping for some sort of redemption for Roy instead. When it comes, it may not be the perfect ending, but it's as good as he will get.

— Betty J. Cotter teaches at the University of Rhode Island and Three Rivers Community College in Norwich, Conn. She is the author of "The Winters" and "Roberta’s Woods."