Have you watched Broadchurch, the British crime drama? It’s an enthralling detective series (3 seasons currently on US Netflix, FYI!), and Olivia Colman who plays DS Ellie Miller (or “Millah” if you’re in our household and like to imitate David Tennant, of Dr. Who fame), will portray Queen Elizabeth starting in season 3 of The Crown. (Just providing a little British television family tree for you.) The acting and story lines are superb, but there is just one little niggling thing that I have to mention every single time we watch, much to my husband’s chagrin, I’m sure. My one annoyance: The village of Broadchurch is just like Richard Scarry’s Busytown. Why, look, the entire cast of characters has come out for the trial: the rector, the local newspaper editor, the plumber, the shady character who actually has experienced hard times and is therefore not shady, just guarded. (No candlestick maker yet.) And here they all are again at a footie match on the beach. And the local woman’s birthday party. And the community vigil. Meanwhile, Huckle Cat and Lowly Worm help mummy with the snacks. Wait a minute…
Despite the caricature, I suppose that’s what communities – homes – are. Their inhabitants may not always be at the grocery store or pumping gas at the same time as you, but the people who share your geographic space provide the texture, rumpus, and cacophony that comprise what “home” looks like in your mind’s eye.
Here’s the first sentence of An American Marriage by Tayari Jones: “There are two kinds of people in the world, those who leave home, and those who don’t.” And that’s basically what this stirring novel is about. Leaving home changes you, but is that good or bad? Because when you leave home, you’re essentially leaving the “type” of people who comprise a community. (You can read my thoughts about how communities are informed by landscapes here.)
There’s a lot to give away, plot-wise, in this book, so I won’t. (Although I just read the dust jacket, and the blurb actually reveals more of the plot than I’d realized. I did not read it before diving in, and my recommendation to you would be the same.) Here’s what I knew before starting An American Marriage: Roy and Celestial are married and Roy is convicted of a crime he did not commit. And there you go.
Jones subtly touches on the concepts of home, fitting in, rural vs. urban, American black culture (and how it can differ in the two aforementioned types of communities), “upward mobility,” art, and yes, the phenomenon of mass incarceration of black men. (Interestingly, the author employs mostly an indirect “show, not tell” device regarding this topic, and I’m not sure this disturbing phenomenon was ultimately the main point at all. Yet the whole plot revolves around it. Clever – and haunting.)
But back to home: Celestial is from an upper-middle-class Atlanta family, Roy has been raised in rural Louisiana, and readers are introduced to them as they travel to the small town of Eloe to visit Roy’s parents. Jones is clear from the start that “Celestial looked right, but she was from a different world” than Roy and his parents. To Big Roy and Olive, Celestial radiated “Atlanta,” which means city-slicker money and a faster, less traditional way of life – in other words, the “New South.” They don’t necessarily see Celestial and all the nuances that make her, her – instead they see “Atlanta.” Roy baptizes his wife with her own nickname – not “Atlanta,” but more broadly, “Georgia.”
The cast of characters that dots the landscapes of each location gives the families of Roy and Celestial a language – a cultural patois or jargon – for how life “is.” Jones writes this about home: “But home isn’t where you land; home is where you launch.” She also gives these words to Roy: “I wasn’t from this city, like Celestial, but I was of it, and it was thrilling to be home.” Similarly, Celestial ponders the beginning of her relationship with Roy in New York: “Would I have galloped into this love affair if I had never left Atlanta?…I was alone and adrift and [Roy] was lonely in the way that only a ladies man can be. He reminded me of Atlanta, and I reminded him of the same.”
About a month ago, I asked this on Facebook: “What does ‘home’ mean to you? From the very practical to the esoteric, when you hear that word, what do you think of?” The answers were interesting, including the one from an American friend who now lives in China; she wrote that “home” is wherever she is with her husband. “Home” often means the people who love us and make us feel at ease. But home is also the Greek chorus of everyday citizens who comprise our personal backdrops: The Orthodox Jewish woman who was always on our (relatively empty) train car as I took my daughter to preschool in Brooklyn; the older man who stood watch on Magazine Street in Cambridge’s Central Square; the guy who does the returns at Target. (I’ve wholeheartedly embraced suburban American life.) Broadchurch may be a bit of a caricature in its Busytown-ness, but when you get down to it, it demonstrates perfectly the patina of life at “home.”
So, if you’re like me and have lived in in six different cities – with encores in two of them – you’re bound to get your locals mixed up. I’ll often be in the grocery store in our current residence outside of Boston and feel a ping of recognition as I pass someone in an aisle – until I realize that the person I’m conjuring lives in Dublin, or Seattle, or Charlotte. Is it plausible that they, too, might be trolling the seltzer aisle of Sudbury Farms? Possibly, but that would be weird; those types of coincidences happen very rarely.
But they sometimes do.
In 1990, my husband, a onetime tuba player (I know!), had the opportunity to travel with the Hudson Valley Youth Symphony Orchestra to Asia. One day in Hong Kong he did a big ol’ double take because he thought he saw Mr. Chin, his neighbor from his hometown. He had only met Mr. Chin once, but he was recognizable in the neighborhood for two reasons: 1) He was Asian in a pretty non-diverse town, and 2) He had a fondness for paint-splashed bicycle shorts. On this fateful day in Hong Kong, the two passed each other, turned around, and realized that yes, the two neighbors from Dutchess County, New York had met across the globe. Neither had any idea that the other would be there. I guess home is where the paint-splattered pants are.
In one of Roy’s prison missives to Celestial he writes, “P.S. When I first started calling you Georgia, it was because I could tell you were homesick. Now I call you that because I’m the one missing home and home is you.” Sometimes your Broadchurch-esque townspeople meet you across the globe – or in the case of An American Marriage, in a prison cell – in the form of a person and bring a wash of familiar “home” with them. As Jones writes, home is where one is “launched,” but it will always, always sneak up on you in unexpected places.