Roy believes he falls into the category of people who have left home, as opposed to those who have not. Though his wife Celestial refers to him as a country boy, he sees his home of Eloe, Louisiana as a small town. Celestial, meanwhile, is from Atlanta and thinks of herself as cosmopolitan, though she still lives in the house she grew up in.
Roy attended Morehouse College, becoming the first of his family to get an undergraduate education. He thinks of home as the place one launches from, not where one lands. His parents worked hard so that they were never poor, but they did struggle. He reflects that, ten years after arriving in Atlanta, the city had become his home and Celestial his family. At that point, they’d been happily married for a year and a half. Celestial was an artist—a “shooting star” woman—and Roy was “on the come-up” in business.
Roy’s ambition is evidenced by his attending a historically black college and establishing a life with Celestial in urban Atlanta. Their success in their respective careers is a point of pride for Roy, as is their happy marriage. These details underscore the promise and potential of the young couple.
Roy recalls, in flashback, how his girlfriend before Celestial was also a “proper” girl from Atlanta yet pulled a gun on him at a gala, accusing him of cheating on her. After breaking up, Roy went to visit his parents, Big Roy and Olive, in Eloe. There, Olive told him that his girlfriend was probably already with someone else because no one would dump him without an alternative in place. Roy confirmed that his ex immediately began dating a lawyer after they broke up. Olive then told him that he should be with someone from their hometown, rather than attempting to romance light-skinned women in Atlanta.
Olive’s conjecture that the woman must already have had a back-up man waiting in the wings foreshadows the fact that when Celestial tells Roy she can no longer be married to him, romance is already blossoming with their mutual friend Andre. Olive’s judgment of Roy courting light-skinned city women reflects different assumptions and prejudices within the black community, wherein lighter skin is stereotypically associated with wealth and class.
Roy believes that Olive should have liked Celestial from the beginning because they had so much in common, but Olive has always believed Celestial is from another world. Celestial says that the only thing that might make Olive love her would be a baby. Roy is ready to start a family and thinks about how, unlike his own parents did, he won’t constantly remind his children of the slaves who lost their lives so that they could live the way they do. Celestial vows to never tell their children they have to be “twice as good to have half as much.” Celestial is a refined woman who bears her height as if she chose to be tall. Roy considers asking if they can name their child Future.
Olive worries that Celestial thinks she’s better than Roy and his family. This isn’t the case, but Olive’s assumption shows the insidious reach of prejudice. Despite their class differences, however, Roy and Celestial have both grown up aware of societal racism. This evidences that such prejudice crosses class boundaries, and highlights that no one is immune from its danger. The two hope they can create a life without these burdens for their children.
At their wedding, Celestial makes it clear to Roy that all of the pomp and circumstance are just for show. In Bali on their honeymoon, Roy suggests they make a baby, but Celestial tells him it’s not time yet. On their first wedding anniversary, they agree it’s time to start trying, but Celestial discovers a woman’s phone number in Roy’s wallet. Though he says that nothing happened, Celestial is angry. They make love, but Celestial insists he wear a condom.
Roy later reflects that, if he and Celestial had had a baby right away, then their relationship might have weathered Roy’s incarceration differently. The threat of infidelity in the marriage shows that the relationship was not perfect even before Roy was incarcerated.
Roy is Celestial’s muse. Her first award-winning sculpture is a work in glass that looks like a large marble with Roy’s face swirled inside. Roy’s goal is to work hard so that Celestial can stay home making her art, primarily dolls. Roy has a plan for making a wholesale business of the dolls, and he notes that the plan works out in the end.
Even before Celestial’s fame gets a boost from her making a doll dressed like an incarcerated Roy, she used her husband as her subject matter. This is important in light of later considerations as to whether Celestial is taking advantage of Roy’s misfortune to further her artistic career.
Something terrible happens when the couple visits Roy’s parents in Eloe over Labor Day weekend. Roy has just made some big sales, and he hopes to buy a new home because their current home was deeded from Celestial’s parents to her alone. As they approach Eloe, Celestial tells Roy she has a bad feeling about the visit, adding that she gets nervous around his parents. To Roy, however, it’s Celestial’s parents who are wealthy and unapproachable, having earned a considerable fortune a decade before when her father invented a compound to keep orange juice from separating.
Roy is self-conscious about the fact that only Celestial owns their current home. While Roy isn’t uncomfortable around Celestial’s parents, he does clearly harbor some resentment for the way the Davenports seem to guard their wealth and fail to than include him as true family.
Roy tries to calm Celestial’s nerves, but she suggests they return home, encouraging Roy to blame their absence on her. Roy notes that, looking back, he wishes he would have paid attention to the danger signs, but, in the moment, he hoped that Celestial was being overemotional because maybe she was pregnant—something that would have “locked up” their relationship.
Celestial’s premonition about something being off forebodes tragedy. Roy’s choice of words when discussing a potential pregnancy foreshadow his impending incarceration, as well as the fact that, without a child to bond them, their marriage will not weather what is to come.
Upon arriving at his parents’ home, Roy bounds out of the car and Olive is elated to see him. Celestial remains in the car at first, until Roy returns to help her out. After ushering her inside, Roy hangs back with Big Roy who tells him that the dynamic between Celestial, Roy and Olive is a “triangle.” Roy says that the women will eventually warm up to one another.
Celestial’s reluctance to be in Eloe stops her from exiting the car immediately, but Olive interprets this as Celestial being prissy and wanting her door opened for her. By calling their dynamic a “triangle,” Big Roy implies that Roy loves Celestial and Olive, but that Celestial and Olive love only Roy. The idea of a triangle echoes Celestial later developing a romance with Andre while still married to Roy.
When the women join them in the kitchen, Olive tells Celestial that she hears her daughter-in-law is famous; Roy had sent his mother a copy of Celestial’s college alumni bulletin featuring an article about her dolls. Olive asks if people really pay $5,000 for the dolls and Celestial demurs, but Roy proudly confirms that this is true. Olive conjectures that it must be white folks who are willing to pay that much. Celestial steps up to defend herself, saying the dolls are intricately made works of art. Big Roy says perhaps they need to see one in person and Celestial goes to the car to get one.
Olive’s dismissive comments to Celestial suggest she is intimidated by her daughter-in-law’s success. While Celestial attempts to remain humble, Roy freely expresses how proud he is of his wife’s work—which will contrast with his later resentment of her devotion to the dolls. Celestial’s assertion that the dolls are not simply toys for white people hints at her later activism.
Celestial brings in a doll swaddled like a baby, a commission for the mayor of Atlanta. Olive gasps when she sees the doll, recognizing its likeness to Roy. With Olive rendered speechless, Celestial describes the care she put into the doll’s construction. Olive asks if she can have it, but Roy tells her it’s already sold for $10,000. Celestial says Olive can have it and that she will simply make another one for the mayor. Thinking Celestial is rubbing in her success in her face by mentioning the mayor, Olive refuses the doll.
Olive’s positive reaction to the doll seems to be primarily related to its likeness to Roy, rather than the intricacy of the art. Once again, it’s Roy who steps in to point out the worth of the doll, while Celestial freely offers it to Olive. Olive, however, again misconstrues Celestial’s generosity for pretension, further reflecting the class anxiety that exists between the families.
The groups eats dinner together quietly. Roy sips his iced tea and realizes Olive was so angry she mistakenly seasoned it with salt instead of sugar. His diploma then falls off the wall and the glass of the frame cracks. In hindsight, Roy wonders whether these were signs.
The tea being seasoned with salt instead of sugar echoes how the family is attempting to cover up their disagreements by pretending all is well, when in fact their relations are distinctly unpalatable.
After dinner, Big Roy offers to bring their bags into the house, but Roy says he’s booked them a room at the Piney Woods. Olive asks if this was Celestial’s idea, but Roy takes full credit. It takes them a long while to leave the house for the hotel. Olive tells Celestial she would accept another doll that Celestial might make especially for Olive and Big Roy notes that a live grandchild would be even better.
While it’s Roy’s decision to stay at a hotel instead of with his parents, they again assume that this was Celestial’s idea, putting her at a further disadvantage in their judgmental eyes.
On their way to the hotel, Roy pulls over near a bridge. He carries Celestial down the embankment, grateful to be stronger than her. As they sit near the bank of the stream, Roy tells her about fishing here with Big Roy when he was younger. He says that the cars passing on the bridge overhead sound like a song. Roy admires his wife’s scent and beauty and calls her “Georgia,” her pet name, and they kiss passionately.
Roy shares an important place from his youth with Celestial, a testament to his love for her. Roy will continue to refer to Celestial as Georgia in his letters to her once incarcerated, a reminder of where she is from and the state in which they built their home together.
The hotel where they stay is not particularly nice. Roy tells Celestial that Olive worked there as a cleaner when the place was called The Rebel’s Roost and a Confederate flag hung in each room. Olive went into labor while working but refused to let Roy be born under that flag, so the motel owner drove her to Alexandria.
The fact that Roy will soon be arrested in the motel where he was almost born reflects the inability of Olive—or anyone– to protect her son from the injustice of racism. Like the Confederate South before the Civil War, the prison system is often referred to as a modern form of slavery.
When Celestial asks if his father was working at the time, Roy reveals that Big Roy is not his biological father. Instead, he adopted Roy when he was a baby and changed his name. Celestial asks why Roy is only telling her this now, a year after they’ve been married. Roy asks what difference it makes who his father is, but Celestial is hurt at the deception rather than the news itself. He says he knows who his father is, he just doesn’t know him.
Celestial cares only that he kept a secret from her, but Roy misunderstands and thinks that she would have judged Olive for being a teenage mother. Roy won’t understand her anger until he unknowingly encounters his biological father later in the novel.
Roy stops Celestial from saying more by speaking the words “November 17.” They use this code, the anniversary of their first date, as a way to stop fighting They agree to take a break from arguing for fifteen minutes and Roy goes to fill the ice bucket. He knows that in the meantime Celestial will call her childhood friend Andre, who introduced Roy to Celestial in college.
Roy and Celestial have had enough fights to have devised a “safe word” to prevent either of them from saying something they’d regret, indicating that their marriage is not perfect but that they care for one another. Celestial’s close friendship with Andre is integral to the love triangle that develops later in the story.
At the ice machine, Roy meets a woman about Olive’s age, heavyset, with her arm in a sling. In an attempt to be courteous, he carries her ice to her room for her and then props her window open with a bible. The woman asks if he can look at the runny toilet and he fixes it, leaving with a warning that she should double-check the lock on her room’s loose doorknob. He leaves the room at exactly 8:48 p.m. and at taps on the door to his own room at 8:53 p.m. Celestial makes them drinks and Roy notes that this is the last happy evening he’d experience for a long time.
Roy is careful to note his politeness and the exact time of his encounter with the woman at the ice machine to counteract any suggestion that he did something to scare her or could possibly have been involved with her rape later that evening. By the time he returns to the room, Celestial is in a better mood, presumably because she has been talking to Andre, underscoring their deep connection.