Four disparate characters populate Cara Wall’s debut novel, The Dearly Beloved, as co-equal protagonists. In the prologue, Charles Barrett has died after forty years ministering together with James MacNally. Picturing Nan, outside her husband James’s office listening as he pours out his grief, knowing she can help neither him nor Charles’s wife Lily who wants only to be alone, the prologue gives a glimpse of the four people who will inhabit the forty years that comprise the novel.
Charles, destined to follow his professor father as an intellectual professor, makes a different turn into church ministry. He falls in love with and marries Lily, scarred by the loss of her parents in an accident when she was fifteen. She shares his intellectual curiosity but refuses to believe in God. James, youngest son in a dysfunctional family with an alcoholic father and fearful mother, also comes unexpectedly to a call to ministry with a passion for social justice. He marries Nan, the Mississippi daughter of a compassionate minister who has taken her with him as he cares for his congregants and taught her to love all people.
When the men are called to pastor together the historic Third Presbyterian Church in Greenwich Village in the changing times of 1963, they and their wives bring their divergent backgrounds into the mix. Faith crises, personality clashes, and unexpected life changes keep the narrative real without drifting into unchallenging assurance or dismissive cynicism.
The accuracy of Cara’s portrayal of the people and circumstances sent me looking to find out more about her. As the daughter of a Mississippi minister, I vouch for her accuracy in depiction of Nan and her father. She did what writers are often told to do and wrote what she knew. In a Shelf Awareness interview, she says, “Church was my community, my playground, my second home.” She goes on to describe the setting of the book, “Charles and James come into a divided church, in a divided time, in a divided society.” The epilogue comes back to Charles’s death, with the reactions of the other three, changed by life yet still the same.
I read the book, that will go on sale August 13th, as an advance reading copy furnished by Net Galley, and highly recommend that you preorder it from your local independent book store or wherever you buy your books. In just a tad of nit-picking, the only flaw I found was the author’s honeysuckle blooming with lush trees shading the houses at Thanksgiving when Nan takes James to meet her Mississippi family. Even in South Mississippi, honeysuckle flowers are long gone by then and the shade trees have lost their leaves.