Early in her absorbing marital memoir, Sally Brady writes of sorting through her husband Upton’s belongings after his sudden death and making a horrifying discovery: a stash of gay porn. It wouldn’t be the new widow’s only surprise: she also found her husband of 46 years had racked up more than $70,000 in debt.
A Box of Darkness is Brady’s attempt to illuminate her complex, tumultuous marriage in a bid to find the truth at its core, as if that’s ever possible. The couple met in 1956 at the Boston Cotillion; Sally was a debutante. Upton, a dashing Harvard classics major, cut in on her dance partner; she was besotted. They didn’t marry until 1962, however, deterred by events that today would be seen as glaring scarlet flags. From afar, the marriage appeared charmed. They had four children; Upton held a prestigious position in publishing; Sally became a successful novelist. They summered on Cape Cod; martinis were constantly being mixed. Yet money was always scarce and the family was sundered by Upton’s alcoholism—far more, the reader senses, than his wife will admit. Charismatic sober, he was a mean, violent drunk.
Quickly it’s fairly evident that the gay porn couldn’t have come as a total shock: early in the marriage Upton confessed to a sexual encounter with a mutual friend, a man; it wasn’t the first indicator he was gay. Still, Sally believed he’d never do it again with blind faith referred to now as “denial.”
Brady is an elegant writer whose lyrical prose is a pleasure to read. Peering into a marriage is always fascinating, a reminder that they’re mysteries, often most of all to those inside them. Yet while the narrative can read like a John Cheever novel, it can be jarringly discordant, swinging between marital joy and misery as it depicts a complex man who adored and resented his children and his wife, a woman who remains remarkably steadfast in her love—and complicity—even now.