At the climax of The Dearly Beloved arrives a christening. It’s the mid-1960s, and we’re inside Third Presbyterian Church in Lower Manhattan. With his wife, Lily, and their two children seated in the pews, Charles Barrett begins to baptize Lola, baby girl of James and Nan MacNally. As he starts speaking, Charles’ heart and throat tighten. “He loved every person in this church more than he would have ever thought possible,” Wall writes, “loved them not with the automatic love of childhood or the easy love of coincidence, but with the tautly stitched love of people who have faced uncertainty together, who have stuck it out, the strong love of people who looked to their side while suffering and saw the other there.”
In her debut novel, more than 10 years in the making, author Cara Wall follows four characters over approximately a decade, granting them equal voice as they attend college, get married, find their callings, weather tragedies. The resulting book is wise, nuanced, restrained, and — perhaps most radically — kind. Wall’s approach is quiet and intellectual, yet of an overwhelming grace that reminds us: This is exactly why we read literary fiction.
The first section introduces The Dearly Beloved’s quartet. Charles, we learn, grew up the son of a rigid academic, developing habits strong enough for him to follow in his father’s footsteps. But then, while studying at Harvard, he attends a minister’s lecture, forever changed: “God existed, God was real. He could not explain this new conclusion, except to say that 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.” He pursues Lily from the moment he sees her at the library; Lily, orphaned as a child and a firm nonbeliever, rejects his advances — thinking herself incapable of love — only for experience to bind them: “Without his faith, he could not understand the depth of her grief. Without her grief, she could not fathom the lightness of his relief. In this way, they were each other’s mirrors, each reflecting back to the other a pilgrim on an unsought road.”
James wrestles with trauma, too, coming of age in a big, underprivileged family to a loving mother but a broken father, who suffers from the scars of war. Luck — fate? — gives James the opportunity to attend college in Illinois, where he meets Nan, the well-adjusted daughter of a Mississippi minister. She takes James — another nonbeliever — to church, “marveling at how astonishing it felt to love God and man so fully at the same time.” She fears their life could be without religion — “How would she understand the workings of the world? How would she accept its mysteries?” — but James, unlike Lily, is eventually drawn to its power. His faith is intense and confused and pointed. In divinity school and beyond, he develops a “fierceness of being” — asking questions, demanding answers, seeking solutions to society’s troubles.
Charles and Lily marry; James and Nan marry. Their lives converge at Third Presbyterian, where against the milieu of a transforming country, the two men are jointly tapped to preach, to heal a community, to guide them into an uncertain future.
God and literary fiction don’t always get along nowadays: Religious beliefs get pushed to the background as fact of life rather than core of being. Extremism gets outsize focus. Cynicism rules the day. Perhaps that’s why The Dearly Beloved feels so galvanizing. In the vein of the great Marilynne Robinson, Wall compassionately tackles theological matters; she pays close attention to how her devout (and not-so-devout) characters think, how they feel. They’re rendered with distinctive detail: They make mistakes, contend with their flaws, seek redemption.
The couples’ first meeting, at a Chinatown restaurant, marks one of the book’s best scenes, crackling with the funny, sad tendencies of human behavior. Charles and James, who come at their ministry so differently, bond deeply in their convictions, while Nan, a Southern alien in the urban Northeast, drives Lily away with her desperation for her friendship. From there, life goes on. Nan senses God has abandoned her after she miscarries. James’ sharply political view of his position jeopardizes his ministry. Charles drifts from his wife through his continued dedication to the church. And Lily finds happiness, teaching literature at The New School and living the kind of liberating, anonymous life she’d long craved.
Then, unexpectedly pregnant with twins, Lily takes center stage in the book’s final third. The acuity of Wall’s vision, particularly the way her characters project onto one another, shines even brighter. On Charles watching his wife struggle with the idea of raising children, the author writes: “As her belly grew bigger and she began to waddle, she was so changed to him that he could not imagine how different she felt to herself.” When one of Lily’s newborns shows early signs of autism, dynamics change once more: Charles recedes, failing to meet fatherhood’s demands; Nan grows closer to Lily, not as a friend but a constant, a rock; James emerges as the church’s steady hand; and Lily becomes a determined mother — determined to find what makes her son happy and healthy amid crackpot diagnoses and stigmatization. These are The Dearly Beloved’s story lines. They sound small, but feel immense: urgent quests to find meaning. They find no endpoint, but encounter pain and beauty — in friendship, in parenthood, in marriage.
After Lola’s christening is complete, Charles reflects on these families, the history between them, and the sense of God within him, for one final time. “Charles knew all was not well,” Wall writes. “All was not well, all would never be well; but all was not lost.” In The Dearly Beloved, Wall gives us the gift of bearing intimate witness as human beings grapple with their faith, fall in love, build a family. She realizes the power of the novel in its simplest, richest form. A-