In her debut novel, “The Dearly Beloved,” author Cara Wall tells the story of two couples over decades of love and friendship — all of it centered on the exploration of faith and the struggle to find meaning in life.
Charles, Lily, James and Nan meet in Greenwich Village in 1965, when the men are jointly hired to steward the historic Third Presbyterian Church through turbulent times. The young ministers have drastically different styles: Charles relies on research and insight. James is driven to action and wants to save the world.
Their wives, too, could not be more disparate: Nan is the daughter of a Southern minister, “the spitting image of the girls at Radcliffe who had married early and had babies instead of careers.” Lily looks like Audrey Hepburn, craves independence, and does not believe in God.
Wall chronicles the couples’ everyday struggles amid big-picture theological conflicts. The novel has been compared to Marilynne Robinson’s “Gilead” trilogy, likely because issues of faith aren’t too prevalent in modern literary fiction. It’s also a quiet novel, full of deep thoughts and masterful writing. But that’s where the similarities end. Unlike Robinson’s novels, “The Dearly Beloved” seems a slog at times, and its dogged focus on religious philosophy sometimes fails to pull the reader through the story.
Much like its main characters, though, the novel redeems itself toward the end. One of Charles and Lily’s sons shows signs of autism, and the dynamics change for the whole quartet. Charles begins to doubt God, James steps up to safeguard the church, Nan becomes a better friend, and Lily strives to discover how to keep her child happy and healthy.
In all, “The Dearly Beloved” is a finely written story, a gentle portrayal of flawed human beings who learn through experience to make the adjustments life requires.