“Dearly beloved,” he began. They were the words that started weddings, not baptisms, but the people in the church were his beloved, so dear that as he spoke his heart and throat grew tight.”
“Dearly beloved” is a familiar phrase used at the beginning of many Christian wedding ceremonies. Found in the Apostle Paul’s letters, it conveys private tender feelings, as when a husband says it to his wife, or when a clergyperson says it to the congregation.
Author Cara Wall grasps both the private and public sentiments of this phrase and proves she comprehends these unique relationships in her insightful debut novel.
The narrative follows the private relationships of two ministers and their spouses, Charles and Lily Barrett and James and Nan MacNally. Concurrently, it considers their public relationship with their congregation. Charles and James co-pastor the Third Presbyterian Church in Greenwich Village. Their decade-long story begins in 1963 when emotions about civil rights and the Vietnam War are raw.
Charles, son of a prominent Harvard professor, meets Lily at the Radcliffe University library. Their wittiness and intelligence attract them to each other from the moment they meet. In their first conversation, Lily reveals her parents were killed in an automobile accident and she does not believe in God.
James, from a poor, lapsed Catholic family, manages to bolt from poverty when a generous uncle pays his tuition at the University of Chicago. He meets Nan, a Mississippi belle from a minister’s family, at a musical recital at Wheaton College where she is a student. James is a struggling student trying to determine a career that will please his soon-to-be wife and also meet his need to ease the world’s pain.
Wall’s novel has three movements. The first covers the complex love stories of both couples. Charles and Lily’s marriage is portrayed as a battle of faith versus atheism. James and Nan’s union is characterized by ease and carefully built trust.
The second movement depicts the tensions growing between the co-pastors and the rifts that begin to appear between them and the congregation. James preaches social justice and challenges the congregation to use its wealth to build a more equitable society. Charles’ homilies are intended to help people discern ethical behavior in their daily personal lives and to offer comfort to parishioners facing sickness and grief.
Nan takes to the role of a preacher’s wife effortlessness while non-believer Lily moves away from the church into her own world, teaching literature at The New School and participating in social activism.
In the third movement, the novelist describes how the foursome weather family tragedies. Lily and Charles become parents to an autistic child whose wide-ranging care frays Lily’s physical and mental strength. Wall skillfully describes the changing dynamics of the MacNally marriage as Charles falls short of the demands of fatherhood and Lily becomes an assertive, determined advocate for her autistic child. The author deftly portrays the ties between the two couples as they experience suffering and meet challenges to their individual beliefs.
Wall addresses difficult theological issues head on and sensitively demonstrates how both devout and non-believing characters come to grips with disillusionment, doubt and death. All four face up to errors of judgment, address their flaws and seek new meanings for their lives.
The author has written a smart, prudent, nuanced and caring book. Her approach to these couples and their tumultuous decade is full of grace. She creates four human beings as they wrestle with faith, form life-changing friendships, fall in love and create new families. It is a satisfying and wise read that entwines friendship, love, faith, disbelief and determination.