I was trying to figure out an appropriate book group for Kate Braestrup’s memoir, Marriage and other Acts of Charity. You don’t need to be married to read this book, though I do think it might feel more relevant to a person who is, if not married, then contemplating the married state. Still, her meditations on compassion and service are moving and profound and could be edifying for a wide range of readers. I enjoyed this book as a diversion from everything else I was reading, fiction and non. It is not fiction, but she does tell some absorbing stories. And it is not, strictly speaking, non-fiction, since as she admits, some characters are composites and details have been altered.
Braestrup is a chaplain for the Maine Warden Service, and a mother of four who is remarried after being widowed. She is a deeply spiritual person – her denomination is Unitarian-Universalist – and she talks about how certain people seem predisposed, neurologically, for mystical revelations. Her recollections of her early religious experience, college activism and stormy first marriage are absorbing if a bit overwrought. One might accuse her of rambling a bit but for the most part I didn’t mind, since the places she took me were spiritually instructive. She always has her eye out for transcendent truths, a quality I admire in a writer and that I expect from a person of the cloth.
I was taken in right away by her description of what she does for a living: “No one needs a chaplain when the outcome is likely to be good, so quite a lot of my work deals with death. Or to put it differently…I bear witness to the ways in which love resurrects itself in the face of loss. It is a great honor to be present to a stranger’s grief, to play even a small part in the most intimate, excruciating, and transformative chapter in a person’s and a family’s history.”
I know several people who attend book groups at their places of worship (Lutheran, Mormon and Jewish). Braestrup’s tone, which is reverent and earnest with some lighter moments, seems appropriate for a faith community’s book club. My husband and I agree on her assessment of the conjugal state, and also concur that the most charitable act of all is to remain silent on which partner is the more charitable. I will certainly never tell.