Summary and book reviews of The Dearly Beloved by Cara Wall

The Dearly Beloved

by Cara Wall

The Dearly Beloved by Cara Wall X
The Dearly Beloved by Cara Wall
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  • First Published:
    Aug 2019, 352 pages
    Jul 2020, 352 pages


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Book Reviewed by:
Kim Kovacs
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Book Summary

A luminous debut novel about two young couples whose lives become intertwined when the husbands are appointed co-ministers of a venerable New York City church in the 1960s, spanning decades - for readers of Ann Patchett and Nicole Krauss.

Charles and Lily, James and Nan. They meet in Greenwich Village in 1963 when Charles and James are jointly hired to steward the historic Third Presbyterian Church through turbulent times. Their personal differences however, threaten to tear them apart.

Charles is destined to succeed his father as an esteemed professor of history at Harvard, until an unorthodox lecture about faith leads him to ministry. How then, can he fall in love with Lily--fiercely intellectual, elegantly stern—after she tells him with certainty that she will never believe in God? And yet, how can he not?

James, the youngest son in a hardscrabble Chicago family, spent much of his youth angry at his alcoholic father and avoiding his anxious mother. Nan grew up in Mississippi, the devout and beloved daughter of a minister and a debutante. James's escape from his desperate circumstances leads him to Nan and, despite his skepticism of hope in all its forms, her gentle, constant faith changes the course of his life.

In The Dearly Beloved, we follow these two couples through decades of love and friendship, jealousy and understanding, forgiveness and commitment. Against the backdrop of turbulent changes facing the city and the church's congregation, these four forge improbable paths through their evolving relationships, each struggling with uncertainty, heartbreak, and joy. A poignant meditation on faith and reason, marriage and children, and the ways we find meaning in our lives, Cara Wall's The Dearly Beloved is a gorgeous, wise, and provocative novel that is destined to become a classic.


On both his mother's and his father's side, Charles Barrett was descended from old Boston families. His father was the head of the Classics Department at Harvard, where he taught seminars on the Romans and Greeks.

"Societies fail," his father told the freshmen year after year, "when men are rewarded for seeking pleasure instead of responsibility." His tweed jackets rasped as he cracked notes on the blackboard; his comments on papers, written in gaunt handwriting in deep blue ink, were direct and critical. At the dinner table, just before pushing back his chair to retire to his study, he often said, "Obligations are the fuel of life, Charles. Reputation is their reward."

Their shingled, sharp-roofed Victorian house was painted grey with brown shutters. Inside it was stern, angular, and choked with books, each chosen deliberately: a collection of translation, biography, and historical analysis his father would one day bequeath to the library—a legacy of ...

Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!
  1. The Dearly Beloved opens with the scene of James grieving Charles's death. In what ways does grief frame this novel? How do each of the characters respond to the feelings of abandonment that accompany grief? In whom or what do they choose to put their faith after loss? In whom or what do you put your faith in difficult times?
  2. In the prologue, Nan says that "she was soft, and Lily was straight. She wavered; Lily was plumb" (2). Describe Nan and Lily. Do you agree with Nan that she and Lily are opposites? If so, how do they overcome that to become the kind of friends Lily refers to as "her stitches, her scaffold, her ballast, her home" (338).
  3. Early in the novel, Charles's father tells his son that "Obligations are the fuel of life, Charles....
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BookBrowse Review


One of those rare novels that gives pause, prompting one to think about the issues it presents rather than just reading solely for pleasure. Wall’s writing is stellar, as is her character development...Book groups in particular will find this one well worth their time...continued

Full Review (735 words).

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(Reviewed by Kim Kovacs).

Media Reviews

New York Times
Wall’s book is more satisfying as a novel of marriage than of religion. The horizontal relationships are far more realized than the vertical ones, and The Dearly Beloved is most compelling on romance, friendship and familial love...Love as knowledge, love as presence: These human loves are beautifully brought to life in The Dearly Beloved, but they don’t come together as explications of holiness.

Entertainment Weekly
"God and literary fiction don’t always get along; perhaps that’s why Cara Wall’s The Dearly Beloved, a thoughtful debut that follows the lives of two ministers and their wives, feels so galvanizing...Wall’s approach is deceptively quiet and stirringly romantic. Here is the power of the novel in its simplest, richest form: bearing intimate witness to human beings grappling with their faith and falling in love. That Wall executes it so beautifully? Well, this is exactly why we read literary fiction...The best book about faith in recent memory.

Publishers Weekly
[A] rare and intellectually stimulating outing.

Underlying the very readable, honestly human propulsion of her characters' lives in their near-entirety, Wall does a tricky thing quite well, exploring the facts of faith and love at both their most exalting and most trying.

Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
A moving, eloquent exploration of faith and its response to the refining fire of life's challenges.

Library Journal (starred review)
Finely drawn and written with compassion and care, and every word is precisely chosen...This story will be beloved by book clubs and fans of literary fiction.

Author Blurb Matthew Thomas, author of We Are Not Ourselves
Wall has stared into the abyss of real life and come out with energy, hope, and a story suffused in light. We say of books that they are unputdownable; this is a book that you have to put down for a spell in order to take in all the generosity it offers; a book in which it is impossible not to wonder what comes next in these four intertwined and gorgeously observed lives

Author Blurb Mary Beth Keane, author of Ask Again, Yes
An expansive narrative that draws in fifty years and two marriages, this is a novel to settle in with, to read slowly. It asks the biggest question: where can each of us find meaning in this life? There is no moralizing here, only empathy. When I arrived at the end I felt absolutely lifted by the spirit of the story.

Reader Reviews


Careful analyses and well-written dialogue will keep you engaged
While you will find THE DEARLY BELOVED shelved among many other novels, this one should stand out. It is character-driven, which can be a good sign, but plenty of authors get it wrong. Cara Wall doesn’t. THE DEARLY BELOVED is about four people, ...   Read More

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Beyond the Book

The History of Presbyterianism

Church Two of the main characters in Cara Wall's debut novel, The Dearly Beloved, are ministers in the Presbyterian Church. The novel focuses on the turbulence the Church faced in America during the social upheaval of the 1960s, but the roots of Presbyterianism, a Protestant denomination, can be traced back to 16th-century Europe.

On October 31, 1517, an impassioned Augustinian monk named Martin Luther posted an inflammatory document that has become known as the Ninety-Five Theses on the door of the All Saints' Church in Wittenberg, Germany. The widely influential theses called into question many of the Roman Catholic Church's doctrines, particularly its practice of granting indulgences to the wealthy, allowing them to be expunged of sin ...

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