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The Dearly Beloved

Review

The Dearly Beloved

From debut author Cara Wall comes THE DEARLY BELOVED, a heartfelt and poignant novel that asks readers to consider the “what ifs” of faith, love and commitment. Following four individuals from the far corners of Mississippi, Chicago and Greenwich Village through their highs, lows, marriages and friendships, the book covers decades of emotional evolution, echoing the works of authors like Ann Patchett, Elizabeth Strout and Mary Beth Keane.

In the beginning chapters, Wall introduces her characters one at a time, starting with steadfast and intellectual Charles Barrett. Equal parts doomed and fortunate to have the brains to follow in his esteemed father’s academic footprints, Charles is sent reeling when an unorthodox lecture awakens him to God, turning him on to a path of faith and ministry. From there we meet Lily, a bookish, thoughtful girl whose entire life is turned upside down when her parents are killed in a tragic car accident. Rather than turning to a higher power for solace, Lily decides that there is no entity that would allow something so terrible to befall her beloved parents and vows never to love or trust again.

In a very different part of the country, we meet James MacNally, a bright, stoic young boy whose life is darkened by his alcoholic father and beleaguered mother. James does not think much of religion or education, but he knows with all his heart that he must escape the confines of his small town and its mentally crumbling men --- all weighed down by memories of war and the knowledge that their wives and children will never know the darkness they have seen. So when a distant uncle (a man of faith, no less) offers to send him to college, he leaps at the chance and winds up in a world of privilege entirely foreign to him.

"Wall is a gifted and thoughtful writer whose words are dripping with meaning and metaphor. I believe that THE DEARLY BELOVED will have a lasting impression on all who read it."

Last of all is Nan, a preacher’s daughter whose life is wholly dedicated to her faith --- not only in God, but also in her fellow men and women, her family and herself. Unlike the other characters, nothing remarkable has ever happened to Nan...until the day her father tells her he is sending her away to school so that she can see the way others live, thus deepening her respect for faith.

Faith-driven Charles and staunchly atheistic Lily meet in college. He is instantly drawn to her quiet stability and thoughtfulness. Unfortunately for him, she is just as immediately turned off by his belief in something greater. Still, the two are keenly intelligent and share many good meals debating anything and everything --- except the one thing that could break them apart. On a different campus, James spies Nan for the first time and is captivated by her goodness: she is perhaps the only woman who could ever accept him --- hardscrabble beginnings and all --- and maybe, just maybe, help him become a better man.

As each couple starts down the path of marriage and eternity, they are all forced to confront their faiths (or lack thereof) and what role God will play in their relationships. While Charles and Lily silently agree to avoid the topic, James and Nan devote their lives to ministry, even as James continues to question his calling and his own beliefs. As the years pass, each couple experiences their share of joys and discontents, but the story really kicks off in Greenwich Village in 1963, when Charles and James are both called to preach at Third Presbyterian on the corner of Twelfth and Fifth Avenue.

Charles and James are not an obvious match at first: Charles' devotion is unstoppable, and his version of God is one that gives him peace and a quiet resolution to find answers. James, on the other hand, finds God in acts of activism and questioning injustices. Third Presbyterian has long been suffering at the hands of a flighty minister, and the board believes it will take the best of both men to bring it back to its highest potential. But when James pushes the parishioners too far and Charles begins to doubt his faith in his marriage with an unapologetically godless women, the two couples must learn to lean on one another and find whatever version of faith will keep them happy the longest.

I do not often gravitate towards books with non-secular themes or avid discussions of faith, but the faith that Cara Wall writes of in THE DEARLY BELOVED is something universal: a willingness to believe in something, anything. Wall is neither judgmental nor preachy, but rather intelligent, unbiased and meditative. Each of her characters is wholly realized, and their different approaches to faith, love and commitment are carefully balanced yet unflinchingly realistic. While I often disliked Lily, I also found her self-awareness admirable and strong, and felt that she added a much-needed edge to an otherwise intensely hopeful set of characters. At the same time, I found Nan’s capacity for faith inspiring and heartwarming. Yet it was the men, and especially Charles, who shined the brightest for me: Charles is someone you will trust and root for, and James’ passion and inability to ignore injustice makes him unignorable.

Set against the backdrop of the civil rights movement, war and the beginnings of political revolution, THE DEARLY BELOVED feels both timely and timeless. It is a perfect book club choice that will encourage its readers to consider the ways that faith and enlightenment play into their lives and how they can find the compassion within themselves to always do better. Religious, spiritual or atheistic, every reader will find a character of merit here, and hopefully a reason to believe in something greater than themselves --- be it love, family or something more intangible.

Wall is a gifted and thoughtful writer whose words are dripping with meaning and metaphor. I believe that THE DEARLY BELOVED will have a lasting impression on all who read it.

Reviewed by Rebecca Munro on August 16, 2019

The Dearly Beloved
by Cara Wall

  • Publication Date: August 13, 2019
  • Genres: Fiction, Women's Fiction
  • Hardcover: 352 pages
  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster
  • ISBN-10: 198210452X
  • ISBN-13: 9781982104528