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Posts Tagged ‘Cara Wall’

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I have what I call “the Liberty problem” when I really love a book: I want to do what Liberty Hardy sometimes does on All the Books! and gush, “It’s so good. It’s SO GOOD!” It’s challenging, though, when I have to review a book I love that much – and write about it (somewhat) intelligently.

That’s how I feel about The Dearly Beloved, Cara Wall’s debut novel about two ministers and their wives who live and work in Greenwich Village, starting in the 1960s. (Bonus: the church in the book is inspired by Wall’s childhood church, First Presbyterian in NYC – or at least located on the exact same spot. It’s in the part of the Village I love dearly, and I’ve walked by it many times; I even went to a Christmas fair there, back in December.)

I got to read an advance copy of The Dearly Beloved and interview Cara for Shelf Awareness. Below is part of my review, and some excerpts from our email conversation.

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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.

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.

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.

Wall 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.

KNG: Tell us about your inspiration for The Dearly Beloved.

CW: 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.

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.

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.

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It was a pleasure to talk to Cara, and if you’re looking for an insightful novel about real people grappling with faith and love and calling, I highly recommend The Dearly Beloved. 

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