Cara Wall’s 2019 novel The Dearly Beloved centers on two pastors and their wives – Charles and Lily, James and Nan – as they navigate faith and social change in New York City. The book follows each of its central four characters over several decades, slowly unspooling a story from childhood to college to marriage and beyond. The couples first meet in the early 1960s when Charles and James become co-pastors at Third Presbyterian Church. In the ensuing decade, the couples struggle with vocation and church life, as well as their relationships with each other.
The novel, which was an Editor’s Choice pick in the New York Times’ Book Review, a Read With Jenna book club pick, and a recent Wilbur Award Winner, has been widely celebrated as a rare work of recent literary fiction that features clergy. Stina Kielsmeier-Cook recently interviewed Cara Wall about her book.
You wrote this book over 15 years. What was the process like?
Painstakingly tedious and pure joy in equal parts. I often talk about the fact that my greatest dread in life is sitting down to write, which is ironic because my greatest joy in life is writing.
In The Dearly Beloved, the church functions as a place of belonging for Nan, but not for Lily — at least at the beginning of their husbands’ tenure as co-pastors. Nan is comfortable in church: she is a pastor’s daughter and has a robust faith. Lily has experienced tragedy, losing both parents in a car accident, and is an atheist. How does religion – and church community – function in their marriages to pastors?
Religion is the biggest division in both of their marriages. Charles and Lily obviously disagree significantly about faith —but Nan and James aren’t on the same page either. In both marriages, each spouse longs for their partner to have a different kind of faith, and that longing creates a lonely space in each relationship. The hard work of these marriages is learning to accept the other’s faith, the other’s idea of what it means to be a good person. All four of them have to stretch, have to examine their own faiths, have to find a way to be secure enough in their own beliefs that they can live with the person they love. That takes a lot of empathy and a lot of forgiveness.
Church community is something different and much simpler. It is obviously Nan’s forte and Lily’s biggest fear. Fortunately, they are each married to men who give them the freedom to be themselves, so it is relatively easy to decide who will be the queen bee of the church. Though there are passing issues about this role for each couple, I don’t think these marriages are ever truly threatened by the church community. I shudder to think what a battle between Lily and Nan for the love of the congregation would have looked like!
The Dearly Beloved is less about theology and more about relationships, both in marriage and in the greater community of faith.
I didn’t set out to write a book about religion. It’s really a meditation on relationships. I’m fascinated by how we come to know and love one another, and that’s what kept me going through the many years of writing.
What has promoting the book been like? Has anything surprised you in response to the novel?
I’ve been surprised by the fact that most readers seem to hate one woman or the other. So many readers fall into Team Nan or Team Lily! I gave each of them have some of my own strengths and weaknesses, so I’m fascinated by the rivalry.
You grew up in a church similar to Third Presbyterian in New York City. What was your faith formation like? I get the sense from the novel that the church you based this story on emphasized belonging over belief. Was that true in your childhood church?
Belonging and belief, when put side by side, can be a loaded combination. Many churches ask their congregants to believe something specific in order to belong. And, therefore, deny them belonging if they stray too far from their rules—which can cause so much heartbreak. My church was welcoming of all beliefs, any belief, and so everyone who wanted to be a part of the community had a chance to belong.
The congregation was made up of people who thought they would never go to church again, but when they found themselves longing for some sort of religious community.
I actually checked with my parents to see if my experience of church as a child was their experience as adults. To understand their answer, you have to remember that I grew up in Greenwich Village in the early 1970s. The neighborhood was full of people who had chosen to live unconventional lives, who were very liberal, and who believed people should be free to pursue the life they wanted—whether or not that corresponded to cultural norms. Our church was welcoming and inclusive. My mother put it this way: the congregation was made up of people who thought they would never go to church again, but when they found themselves longing for some sort of religious community—especially after they had children—they could bring whatever faith they still had and be comfortable at our church. No one in the pulpit or in the pews was going to tell anyone else what to do; the general consensus was: come to services, listen, talk, and make up your own mind.
I think they would hesitate over agreeing that the church emphasized belonging over belief. It was still, first and foremost, a religious institution. The congregation certainly believed in God. However, no one was expected to believe in God in the same way. There were no rules to follow in order to be accepted. It was a warm, diverse, lively, and merrily irreverent place to be—somewhere you could truly come as you were. I know that felt very different to my parents and their friends than the churches in which they grew up.
In your interview with The Today Show, you said the character you most identify with is Charles, who is the more intellectual, heady pastoral figure in the book. Like Charles, who is married to atheist Lily, do you have close relationships with people who believe differently than you? Do those relationships challenge you to define and understand your beliefs differently and if so, how?
Strangely, at least for someone who wrote a book about faith, I don’t talk about faith with my friends at all. In fact, my daughter was a chorister at Grace Church in New York City for five years, which means that I attended services regularly and was part of a tight-knit community of choir moms who organized post-service lunches, fitted choristers for robes, even went on a lengthy choir tour together. But one morning I looked around church and realized that I had no idea what any of my friends’ personal faith was. We were in church together almost every Sunday and had never talked about our religious beliefs!
I do have a good friend who told me, after the book came out, that she doesn’t believe in God anymore. Although she does a lot of volunteering through her church, especially with refugee communities in New York, she doesn’t believe in God. That’s a change from when we first met, and it surprised me. As I’ve grown older, my belief in some sort of a God has strengthened, and it saddened me a little to think hers has waned. But she has obviously found comfort in that, and I support her!
One of my favorite lines from your book comes at the end from Charles, who says that “only in the quality of your struggle with one another will you learn anything about yourself. Sometimes that struggle is nearly impossible to survive, but it is those trials which make a life.”
In a sense, it’s Charles’ and James’ vocation as co-pastors and their enduring commitment to the church that allows the four couples to stay in relationship with each other despite major trials. Younger generations, particularly in mainline denominations, are less likely to be members of institutions like the church. What do you think might happen if these couples met in 2020 instead of the 1960s? What does the commitment to “struggle with one another” look like in our current era?
I don’t think this book could have been set in the present day. It needed the tighter boundaries of the 1950s and early ‘60s to bind these four people together. I think each couple would still have fallen in love and gotten married, but Lily would have felt much freer to pursue her own career to its fullest, so she wouldn’t have felt stifled and trapped. Nan would probably have been working, as well, maybe as an elementary teacher. None of them would have felt they needed to make the best of a tough situation in quite the same way. Charles and James might have been hired together and might have been friends, but their wives could have remained totally independent.
In 2020, I don’t think there would have been a story to tell about them—this is very much about four people digging deep to stay committed to each other in a time when it was just becoming possible to freely be one’s self. The growing conflict between community and freedom, tradition and modernity, is what makes the end of this story so poignant, I think. They choose to stay together, which is moving and lovely—but we’re also aware that something has been lost.
The commitment to our struggles with one another is the defining path of our current era.
The commitment to our struggles with one another is the defining path of our current era. The clear division in society moves some of us further apart and some of us closer together. Social media allows us to find our very particular tribes and our tribes sometimes make us feel safe to dismiss others. I don’t think this is so different than any other era in history, but today each of us can make our ideas and feelings known to an exponentially bigger audience than ever before.
When Charles says that it is in our struggles with other people that we come to know ourselves, he means the struggles that end in resolution. He’s talking about struggles in which you find a way to live with another person even when it seems impossible, when you forgive them, accept them for who they are, and forge a way ahead. This idea of forgiveness and acceptance seems impossible—even dangerous—to apply to many of the social and political struggles in the current era, but the words still feel true to me. It is in our struggles that we learn about ourselves.
Committing to each other and our communities—whether through family, school, work, or houses of worship, is one way to grow deeper and wider and wise. The relationships we find in loving communities can sustain us for life.