Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Marriage and Other Acts of Charity Book Review

This book review is, to say the least, a long time coming.  I bought the book about six months ago, devoured about half of it, and then forgot about it due to school.  I picked it up again during finals and finished it at least a month ago, before my last book review, but never got around to writing the actual review.  Let’s just say that I was waiting to group it in with my other wedding posts.  Sure, that sounds good.  Let’s just hope I haven’t forgotten anything.

Marriage and Other Acts of Charity is, according to the publisher, a memoir.  This is technically true.  The author, a Unitarian minister named Kate Braestrup, recounts her first marriage, which widowed her, and the beginning of her second, with some other little anecdotes thrown in for good measure.  She shares what she learned, how she changed, et cetera.  All the makings of a good memoir, but this book is more than that.

In Marriage, Braestrup’s second memoir, she devises what can only be described as a manual on how to love.  She describes three different kinds of love as defined in the Greek language: eros, or romantic love; philos, or brotherly love; and agape, or charitable love.  Much of the book centers around the interplay of the three forms of love in Braestrup’s life and the lives of those around her.

Marriage is a quick read, partially because the font is big and partially because it defies gravity and won’t let you put it down.  Braestrup strikes the perfect balance between humor (who knew the Bible could be so funny?), dark irony, pain, joy, and philosophical musings.  There’s something to feed all parts of your mind and heart in here and it’s absolutely worth paying for hardcover now (the paperback’s not out until January).

The husband and I both read this before getting married – I had gotten it into my head that I should read a book about marriage because, well, I like to read things.  It was fortuitous timing that this book happened to be on Barnes & Noble’s Discover New Writers shelf.  While I don’t actually think that we need books to make our marriage work, it can’t hurt and this this little book was and continues to be valuable.  It made me think about how we love each other: we certainly have eros and somebody once told us that we act like brother and sister (not in a creepy way) so I think that we’ve got the philos as well.  The one thing that we could really work at is agape, which Braestrup too finds the most neglected.  While we are generous and kind to one another, we also have the capacity for selfishness (as do most people).  We never said we were perfect and so it is fortunate that this book gave us a chance to reflect on how to make our love fuller and more complete.

This book is not only for those who are in love.  The lessons in love that Braestup shares apply to our relationships with all – not just those we love romantically or brotherly, but also our coworkers and estranged parents and the stranger we pass on the street.  We have the capacity to express love for any and all, which Braestrup is good and strong enough to show us, an act of love in itself.

Incidentally, in high school I used to volunteer at a soup kitchen named Agape.  Working there required the giving of oneself without any expectation of recompense, which was just as often difficult and painful as it was rewarding – a perfect example of Braestrup’s lesson.  

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