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light leaves village nyc

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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book stack red march 2019

I blew through four and a half books on vacation, then struggled to finish anything for over a week after that. C’est la vie, I suppose. But here are the stunners for the second half of March:

A Question of Holmes, Brittany Cavallaro
Charlotte Holmes and Jamie Watson are at Oxford for a pre-college summer program, hoping to leave murder cases behind. But of course, Charlotte gets thrust into a case while wondering if this is the work she really wants to do. I love this smart, crackling-with-tension modern YA series take on Holmes and Watson, and this fourth book (the last?) is wonderful.

Vintage 1954, Antoine Laurain
When three residents (and one American guest) of a Paris apartment building share a rare bottle of 1954 Beaujolais, they wake up the next morning in 1954. The sci-fi premise (flying saucers! Running into another version of yourself!) is a little shaky, but it’s a fun story and I liked the characters, especially antiques restorer Magalie. I like Laurain’s whimsical, wry, slim novels, and I received an advance copy; it’s out June 18.

Searching for Sylvie Lee, Jean Kwok
After a childhood split between the Netherlands and New York City, Sylvie Lee doesn’t feel she fits anywhere, so she becomes a hard-driving high achiever. But when she returns to Amsterdam to visit her dying grandmother and then disappears, her younger sister Amy flies across the ocean to search for her. I loved Kwok’s previous two novels, Girl in Translation and especially Mambo in Chinatown. This one is much darker and sadder, but compelling – a story of family secrets and how the unsaid shapes us. To review for Shelf Awareness (out June 4).

Where the Crawdads Sing, Delia Owens
Abandoned by her family members as a young child, Kya Clark spends years living alone in a shack at the edge of a North Carolina marshland. Known as the Marsh Girl, she’s mostly ignored or shunned by the townspeople. When a young man who knew Kya ends up murdered, the town has to confront its prejudice against her. I loved this book; gorgeous, fierce writing and an unforgettable main character. My friend Bethany called it “Girl of the Limberlost meets murder mystery,” and that’s a perfect description.

The Islanders, Meg Mitchell Moore
Summer on Block Island: Joy Sousa’s whoopie pie shop is facing competition from a new French food truck. Lu Trusdale, bored stay-at-home mom, has a secret project. And disgraced novelist Anthony Puckett is hiding out after a scandal rocked his career and his marriage. Moore’s fifth novel weaves these characters’ stories together and asks big questions about love, life and forgiveness. I love her books: they’re breezy but substantial and her characters are real. I particularly loved Maggie, Joy’s quirky daughter. A friend shared the ARC she scored of this one – it’s out June 11.

The Dearly Beloved, Cara Wall
Charles meets Lily in the library at Harvard, and falls in love with her even though she tells him she can never believe in God. Nan, a Southern minister’s daughter, falls in love with James, son of a hardscrabble Chicago family. When James and Charles are jointly called to pastor a Presbyterian church in New York City, these four lives become inextricably intertwined. A quiet, luminous, powerfully real debut about ministry, friendship and what happens when faith meets truly hard times. I loved every page. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Aug. 13).

The Paris Diversion, Chris Pavone 
Paris, early morning: a man walks into the Louvre courtyard wearing a suicide vest. But not all is as it seems – and Kate Moore, expat housewife and intelligence agent, must work to put the pieces together before it’s too late. I like Pavone’s smart, stylish Eurocentric thrillers, and this one (a sequel to The Expats) is a well-plotted, pulse-pounding wild ride. To review for Shelf Awareness (out May 7).

The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl: Squirrel Meets World, Shannon Hale and Dean Hale
Doreen Green, age 14, is secretly Squirrel Girl – a superhero in training with leaping powers and a squirrel tail. This super fun novelization of her adventures sees her saving the neighborhood with the help of her furry friends. So silly and great.

Most links (not affiliate links) are to my favorite local bookstore, Brookline Booksmith.

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Scattered lovely, funny or astounding moments from yesterday’s Bible department Senior Blessing, which was truly a blessing to all involved – students, faculty and staff:

-Seven cases of water bottles, at least six cases of sodas, 16 bags of chips and half a dozen bags of grapes. And three six-foot Subway sandwiches! Mitch Halstead (one of the seniors), 10 minutes after walking in: “The feeding has begun.”

-A violent, intense, competitive, hilarious Spoons tournament, which Jeremiah almost won – he was the third-to-last one out. Soooo close!

-Stumbling upon Stephen Johnson playing “In Christ Alone” on the piano in the chapel, during a breakout quiet time. Beautiful.

-Sneaking around taking pictures and eavesdropping (a bit) during the prayer stations, which were rich and wonderful. And the prayer garden where they have the stations is charming.

-Robert Oglesby being serenaded to the tune of “I Want It That Way” by a group of students from his youth ministry class, who sang:

Tell me how to get the things from church for free
Tell me how to grow that required goatee
Tell me how to write a pretty resume
You said in class today…

You get the idea. 🙂

-Jack Reese, our esteemed dean, playing charades. Enough said.

-So many faces I adore – Bible department folks who are universally beloved. John Willis. Jeanene Reese. David Wray. Rodney Ashlock. Jan Hailey, who organized the whole shebang. My co-workers are the greatest.

-Randy Harris’s stories about awkward moments in ministry – from praying over a hospital patient who was already dead (!) to marrying a couple who had secretly eloped the week before (!!). And Rodney’s stories about a flying false nose and a “militant nursing mother”…oh my, oh my. 🙂

-Sweet Olivia’s words at the final blessing time: “I grew up frustrated with God because I wasn’t a boy. But I came here and realized that there can be places for women in the church, in ministry. Thank you.”

What a terrific day. Fun, food, games, laughs, hugs, letters, special words of prayer and affirmation and blessing. I’m relieved it’s over, but I’m mostly glad it happened.

Off to Midland with J in an hour. Happy weekend!

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