The Dearly Beloved, Cara Wall. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2019.
Summary: Two couples, the men holding a joint call to a New York City church in a time of change, two wives utterly unlike, and the bonds forged between them as they lean into suffering and the challenges of faith each approaches differently.
The story of Charles and Lily, James and Nan. The story is framed by the death of one of them, and the closely woven friendships forged between four very different people, two of whom were intensely at odds with each other–the fabric of which was rent by this death.
Charles is the son of old blood New Englanders, whose father was a Harvard professor. Charles comes to faith when posed with the question of what faith meant to the medieval people he was studying, discovering that faith in God could be as real for him as for them, and in this realization, he hears a call to ministry.
Lily, bereft of parents in childhood, has lost all faith in God, and hopes to immerse herself in her books and her scholarship at Radcliffe–until she meets Charles, who loves and believes in her, even though she cannot believe in his God.
Nan, a ministers daughter, has grown up believing and modeling her life after her father’s ministry and her mother’s role as a minister’s wife. She goes to the bastion of Christian belief at Wheaton College to study music ministry. She has been raised to see need and help.
James grows up with an alcoholic father, one wounded psychically during World War Two. An uncle recognizes his potential and sends him to the University of Chicago. At a recital, he meets Nan, who is the accompanist. As he asks her father for her hand in marriage, he shares both his decision to become a minister, and his own struggle to believe. He does not so much believe in God but believes in ministry, in actions of service as God’s call for those who would believe.
The four end up at Third Presbyterian Church, in Greenwich Village in New York City in the early 1960’s. The church is in decline, and believes the gifts of the two men together are what they need to minister in a time of change. There lives are regimented by Jane Atlas, their secretary, and under her tutelage, learn the character of their congregation and forge a working partnership, one in which each will fight for the faith and place of the other in the church at some point.
Meanwhile, Lily and Nan come to detest each other. Lily wants no more to do with the church than to support Charles. Nan wants them to get along, wants to help out, wants to care and is rebuffed. It becomes more difficult when Lily has twins, and Nan has miscarriages. And when Nan attempts to help when Lily’s one son is diagnosed as autistic, her sympathy repulses Lily who in turn rebuffs her efforts, even as she and Charles struggle with despair of finding help for their son’s condition, for which at that time their was little to be done but institutionalize such children.
The rest of the story is how these four people struggle, against their own feelings, their pasts, and their pain, to forge deep relationships on the other side of misunderstandings, resentment, and deep despair. The story is one that moves beyond pieties to the gritty struggles involved in believing in a world of loss, of pain, and conflict. To mention the death with which the book opens is not a spoiler–the real story is whether and how theses four will find and navigate life together, coming from such different places.
This is Cara Wall’s debut novel. She creates four central characters, each strong in very different ways. This is neither a cloyingly sweet “religious” novel, nor one that deprecates religious faith as inevitably an exercise of hypocrisy. It explores the struggles of faith, the combination of noble aspirations, and the hidden selves that those who have these aspirations bring with them. We also see a community, whether a church session, a tough old secretary, or even the four principle characters, who do not let each other drift apart, when it would be easy to do.
This work was reminiscent of Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead trilogy. Wall is a graduate of the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, where Robinson was part of the faculty. I was reminded of the relationship of Reverend Ames and Reverend Boughton in Robinson’s works, and their own wrestlings with calling, struggles of faith, and loss. At the same time, whereas Robinson’s distinctive Calvinism runs through her works, Wall’s theological world is much more mainline Christian, focused around God rather than Christ, and much less concerned with the content than the experience of belief and doubt. What stands out in Wall is her respect for her characters, allowing them to develop, not through theological arguments or marked religious experiences, but as each learns to respect, and sometimes forgive, the uniqueness of the other, often finding something shifting, not in the other but in themselves.
This is insightful writing, and I look forward to seeing what else this writer will bring us.
Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.