The Dearly Beloved by Cara Wall
Published by Simon & Schuster
Publication date: August 13, 2019
Genres: Book Clubs, Debut, Fiction, Literary
Charles and James work side by side. Literally. They’re both ministers at a NYC church. Their wives, Lily and Nan, do not share the same closeness. Nan is involved in the church, but Lily wants nothing to do with religion. These are the four people at the very heart of Cara Wall’s luminous debut, The Dearly Beloved. How they came to their faith (or not), how they ended up together, and their individual stories are what makes this novel my favorite reading from this summer.
Each of Wall’s characters presents a different side of faith. Charles was destined to be an academic, like his father. Religion was the opiate of the masses until, after a lecture held by a priest, he felt
God existed. God was real. He could not explain this new conclusion, except to say when he put it away, it was agony, and when he brought it out, it was the deepest, most beautiful relief he had ever known.
It’s perverse then, that once he decides he’s going to become a minister he falls in love with Lily, a woman who, after the death of her parents when she was 15, sealed off her heart and any emotion that involved vulnerability. She doesn’t question: There is no God. Somehow, they find something in each other that fills an empty space enough that they can ignore the gaping divide between them.
James doesn’t believe in God either. A childhood spent in Chicago in poverty with an alcoholic father broken by the war he’s schooled in the world of the street. When an uncle pays for him to go to college he learns that what he believes in is action. Action to right the wrongs.
“I believe in the urge to be good, to stay good, to do good in the world. But I don’t think God exists in the way people would like to believe; I don’t think God saves the day. I think it’s up to us. We know the rules, and we’re the ones who have to play the game.”
His wife Nan is the antithesis to Lily. Soft, sweet, and Southern, she is from a religious family. Her father is a minister and she has been raised to serve God. Her faith is in her bones, but has been untested in a life where needs are always met and misery unknown.
These four disparate people come together when Charles and James are hired in 1963 to rebuild the ministry of a church that’s lost its way. Charles will provide contemplation and solace while James will marshal the congregation to face the plethora of needs the 60s has unleashed.
And that is the outline of a story that is so much more. Wall fills the novel with the intimacies of marriage, the tumult of the times, and the personal demons we all face. The Dearly Beloved is a book of lives. Lives that are rich, textured and full, confusing, difficult. Religion may be the profession, but it is the concept of faith that holds reign. And that is a very different thing. At some point in the novel Charles, Lily, James, and Nan each face personal crises which Wall conveys with a loving kindness. Sentences like Charles’ observation of Lily’s emotional austerity:
She owned not one rabbit’s foot of comfort.
stayed with me for their succinct beauty.
Saying The Dearly Beloved is about religion is risky. I would probably have passed on the novel if it hadn’t been so highly rated by a friend I trust. Reading about people’s religious choices or religious fervor makes me uncomfortable—I have a dislike of proselytizing and who knows whatever other psychological issues I have with the subject. BUT. But, don’t let that impact a decision to read the book or not. This is the deeply affecting story of four flawed people. It is the kind of real, striving, fulfilling fiction I live for. The kind that stays with you for days afterward, that you want to share, and discuss with others. A perfect gem of a novel.
They were, the four of them, married to each other, in a strange way. They had turned in their quarters and the church had given them a silver dollar.