Also published on this date: Shelf Awareness for Wednesday, May 22, 2019

Wednesday, May 22, 2019: Maximum Shelf: The Dearly Beloved

Simon & Schuster: The Dearly Beloved by Cara Wall

Simon & Schuster: The Dearly Beloved by Cara Wall

Simon & Schuster: The Dearly Beloved by Cara Wall

Simon & Schuster: The World That We Knew by Alice Hoffman

The Dearly Beloved

by Cara Wall

Cara Wall plumbs the deep complexities of friendship and faith, set against the backdrop of a rapidly changing world, in her soulful debut novel, The Dearly Beloved. The son of a respected classics professor at Harvard, Charles Barrett has always expected to follow in his father's academic footsteps. During his undergraduate years as a history major, he is caught off guard by two seismic events. First, he realizes, suddenly and irrevocably, that he wants to be a minister, for reasons he can't entirely explain. At nearly the same time, he meets Lily, a brilliant, reserved orphan studying at Radcliffe. She captivates Charles, though she tells him immediately that she can never believe in God. Over the next several years, Charles convinces Lily to build a life with him, despite knowing that she will always stand resolutely apart from his faith.

James MacNally, the youngest son of a drunken father and a worried mother, has hardly thought about God until a distant uncle offers him the chance to go to college, to escape his bleak Chicago neighborhood. Growing impatient with abstract philosophy and rhetoric, he moves toward the church as a way to confront the injustices he sees in the world. He meets Nan, a Southern minister's daughter studying music, and they marry. When, in 1963, Charles and James are jointly called to pastor a Presbyterian church in Greenwich Village, these four lives become inextricably and permanently intertwined.

Wall begins her narrative with Charles's death, and a brief glimpse into the grief of James and Nan. She poses the question: How do we come to love another person so much that we "cannot bear [their] passing?" The narrative then goes back to introduce each of the main characters: Lily's sudden loss of both her parents in a car accident when she was a teenager; Charles's uneasy relationship with his distant father and careful mother; James's impatient longing to be free of his father and make a difference in the world; Nan's childhood in her Mississippi church. Wall tells the origin story of each couple's relationship, then shows the uncertain first encounter between James and Charles (who interview for the same job). The unorthodox decision of the Fourth Presbyterian Church to hire them both, young and untried though they are, will end up shaping the rest of their lives.

As the church--historically comfortable, white and middle-class--struggles to adapt to the turbulent 1960s, its two young ministers must adjust to their new jobs, their multifaceted joint responsibilities and to each other. Jane Atlas, the long-time, no-nonsense church secretary, guides them both with a steady hand. But they must learn to navigate the politics of ministry on their own, and work in tandem while respecting one another's vastly different perspectives. Meanwhile, Nan longs to befriend Lily, but Lily keeps herself deliberately separate from Charles's work and their new community. James's restless energy and Charles's sober, thoughtful approach to ministry work provide a good balance in the office, but the personal relationships among all the characters are more complicated and infinitely more interesting.

Wall uses the backdrop of professional ministry and the pressing questions of faith and vocation to expertly explore the layers of connection that exist within each marriage and between the two couples. Over the years, James, Charles and Nan each grow into a deep personal faith, but all of them wrestle mightily with doubts and fears, especially when one of Charles and Lily's twin sons, Will, is diagnosed with autism. Charles, to his own shame, finds it particularly difficult to accept his son as he is, but all four adults ultimately respond to Will in ways that make them more compassionate, more human.

Although Will's diagnosis and its effects loom large in both couples' lives, Wall's narrative includes a whole host of other struggles. She explores the congregation's response to some of James's more controversial decisions, and what happens when Charles decides to share his own doubts publicly. She probes the deep love that exists in each marriage, and the (non-religious) faith both pairs of spouses must place in one another. Through decades of heartbreak, happiness and many ordinary days, they build lives and families the best way they know how; with honesty, compassion and as much grace as they can give themselves and one another. At the end of the book, they have all become people "who had loved and hoped and worked and lost and failed and made amends."

Quiet, sharply observed and stunning in its simple compassion, The Dearly Beloved is a powerful meditation on friendship, calling, marriage and what happens when faith meets truly hard times. --Katie Noah Gibson

Simon & Schuster, $26.99, hardcover, 352p., 9781982104528, August 13, 2019

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(photo: G. Culliford)

Cara Wall is a graduate of the Iowa Writers' Workshop and Stanford University. She is also the founder and inaugural director of the Iowa Young Writers' Studio. She lives in New York City with her family. The Dearly Beloved is her first novel. 

Tell us about your inspiration for The Dearly Beloved.

I didn't set out to write a story about ministers. I was reading Happy All the Time by Laurie Colwin, which is about two couples. I loved the way she wrote about marriage and explored what happens after the traditional "happily ever after" wedding moment. 

I grew up in a church with two ministers. One was very tall and the other was fiery. They were both dignified, commanding and august. This book is inspired by my memories of them, which are full of reverence and the tiniest sprinkle of fear.

My family history is steeped in religion. My mother and father were raised as Nazarenes--my paternal grandmother converted when she had a vision of an angel on the other side of the washing line. It was a strict religion--no drinking, dancing or listening to music outside the church. But my grandparents' churches were also warm and welcoming.

My parents arrived in Greenwich Village in 1965. My father got an advanced law degree at NYU, and my mother got a job as receptionist at First Presbyterian Church. They have been members there for 55 years. First Presbyterian was the cornerstone of my childhood. All my parents' friends were members of the church--which can sound uptight, but Greenwich Village in the 1970s was full of singers and artists and NYU professors. My parents went to church parties every weekend--I was famous, as a toddler, for falling fast asleep beneath whatever coffee table they put me under. Church was not exactly "religious" for me. It was my community, my playground, my second home.

All of that informed the way I wrote about Charles, Lily, James and Nan. I didn't see them, first and foremost, as ministers and ministers' wives. I saw them as people thrown together by circumstance, who have to learn to forge complicated relationships. My main questions were: How do we make friends? How do we become close? How do we create lives with each other? How do we keep from being lonely? How do we trust?

Lily tells Charles early in their relationship that she can never believe in God. But he loves her and builds a life with her anyway. Can you talk about this central disagreement in their marriage?

I see Charles and Lily as very much alike. They are both intellectuals, and both make deliberate decisions about the way they want to live their lives. They both grew up in loving families but felt isolated because they were more serious than everyone around them. Charles hadn't experienced tragedy in the way Lily had, but he was familiar with her feeling of isolation. He and Lily respond to that loneliness in each other--they understand it intuitively. To me, the central issue in their marriage is not religion, per se--it is that Charles wants Lily to be happy, and Lily has accepted the fact that she will never be happy. She lives in pragmatism and he lives in hope.

Also, Charles didn't discover God until just a few years before he met Lily. His faith is still forming as he courts her, and it grows around her in the same way trees will grow around boulders and fences. Her atheism causes him to constantly re-evaluate his life. He is never on autopilot, because he is always deciding what it means to be a minister whose wife does not believe in God. If he were married to a believer he might be less substantial, his faith lighter and easier. His relationship with Lily makes his faith--and his life--richer and more nuanced. More challenging, certainly, but a challenge that makes him stronger and better able to lead a church.

One of Charles and Lily's sons, Will, is diagnosed with autism at a time when almost nothing was known about the disorder or how to manage it. Tell us about writing Will's character and the ways other characters respond to him.

Will was the only character I didn't try to inhabit--I wanted to keep the same sense of remove from him that the other characters feel. I wanted to experience him through Charles and Nan and James and Lily, so that I could capture their bewilderment and desperation.

The hardest character to write about in this section of the book was Charles. He completely shuts down, and it was tricky for me to access his internal struggle. It seems obvious that he would be the character who would say, "God will help me through this." But every version of the story I tried to write that way felt utterly false. In fact, it was intriguing to me that none of the characters chose that path--none of them said, "I'm giving it to God." Each of them took human responsibility for their relationship to Will--real-world, tangible action to the best of their ability. Those abilities varied wildly--which is one of the aspects of the book that keeps it from being just a book about faith. It's a book about marriage and families and crises and healing.

The book tells the story of Charles's and James's work, and how the church responds to them as ministers. That response is sometimes contentious.

The biggest misconception about churches is that everyone gets along. This is not true! A church is like a co-op building--it has a board and voting members. It's a hierarchy, which causes power struggles. For every member, church is one of the most important places in their lives, which means they're intensely invested in how it's run.

Charles and James come into a divided church, in a divided time, in a divided society. They are caught between preserving the historical identity of a respected institution while steering it through the cultural changes of the 1960s in a way that makes it relevant to modern times. This is like turning a cruise ship: there is more than one propeller to redirect, and it takes a long time to head in a new direction. Charles and James make choose that new direction for their church. This is not, generally, the way Presbyterian churches make decisions, so they get in some trouble. But James's inherent need to take action made it plausible that he would bypass tradition for what he thought was right.

Three of the four main characters are people of deep faith, but their faiths are quite different from one another. How did you approach writing about their varied struggles with belief and doubt?

I have every one of the struggles with belief and doubt that these characters have. I parcelled out my own, varied experiences with faith between them. Writing about four different religious lives was freeing for me--I often feel like I have to make up my mind about faith and religion, but while writing this book I was allowed to embrace my indecision. I had the chance to think deeply about the ways our faiths of origin affect the way we see the world and the way we live our lives. Some people follow their childhood faith without thinking, some tweak it, some completely disavow it. Whatever we do, it remains embedded in us. --Katie Noah Gibson

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