When I read the title of James Braly’s Life in a Marital Institution: 20 Years of Monogamy in One Terrifying Memoir, I thought I was about to embark on a rollicking ride, a voyeuristic opportunity to enjoy the maddening imperfections of someone else’s relationship for a change. Misery loves company, right? The inside of the jacket flap offers "modern adventures in extended breast feeding, co-sleeping," and promises the inside scoop on cumin-roasted placenta. All of this was enough to get jaded, anti-organic people like myself good and revved up.
But what starts out as a ‘you-must-be-joking’ account of ‘she did what??’ soon becomes a portrait of the dysfunctional, yet oddly endearing family life into which Mr. Braly was born. With one sister a high-strung control freak and the other a cheeky, once hard-living druggy darling facing mortality with, ultimately, her own deathbed wedding, to name a few 'colorful' family members, you begin to forget the "institutional" play on words and are left with a single reference to the insanity that has been Braly’s original family life.
Meanwhile, bits and pieces of Braly's marital life seem only to be sprinkled throughout the narrative in relatively limited engagements, and, while the scenes Braly paints of his own family dynamics portray the most hilarious, eccentric, and oftentimes poignant moments, it is the accounts of his own marriage, and how it evolved over the years, that feels in short supply.
Braly is genuine, a natural, and his inviting, self-conscious prose makes him particularly easy to connect with. There are times, though, where he’s like a jokester who won't settle down and just talk, leaving you hungering for the meat and the substance. You want the story to take you on a journey, and not keep stopping for gas.
I was expecting to read some real "dish" here. But then I thought, with a wife still very much in the picture (she is the mother of Braly's children after all), to what lengths can one actually go in order to recapture all the hell one endured at the hands of an ex? How much can one person trash another in print without decimating what's left of the family unit? If Life in a Marital Institution is indeed a memoir of marital strife, it is also a study of what in a relationship brings us to points of madness -- it's about baggage that has nothing at all to do with marriage, and there is plenty here to go around. And Braly resolves this finally, when he literally digs down deep into the soil of grief and loss and delivers not self-deprecation, not pop-culture references, nor flowing stream of consciousness, but substance.
Originally performed live at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival and in venues around the U.S., Life in a Marriage Institution is James Braly’s story about marriage and family, well told. And telling is what Braly, who has been featured on New York's Moth Radio Hour, does best. The book is an entertaining read, but to hear -- and watch -- Braly deliver himself, now that that is a story, in itself. - Diana Geffner-Ventura
Ms. Geffner-Ventura, a Manhattan real estate broker and a writer since she held her first #2 pencil, has been published on her kitchen dry-erase board, and most recently, in Prime Number Magazine.