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The Dearly Beloved~A Book Recommendation
And a bit of an announcement
A few weeks ago, I had a lovely visit with one of my dearest friends in her home. This friend is a true kindred spirit in so many things, from books and parenting to theology and interests. She’s such a treasure in my life and was one of my saving graces a few years ago when I was really struggling with church stuff (which could probably be a twelve-part series here if I wanted to get into it…which I don’t.)
Anyway, we were chatting about books, as we often do, and she asked me if I had read The Dearly Beloved by Cara Wall. After telling her I had not, she promptly got up, pulled a copy from her book pile, and placed it into my hands saying something to the effect of, “Stop everything and read nothing else until you read this.” Because this friend reads more books a month than is humanly possible, and I trust her opinion, I took note and obeyed.
Well, thanks to the recommendation, I’ve been mind-wrecked for the past three weeks. I finished the novel over a week ago and have barely been able to think of anything else since the day I cracked open its pages…for so many different reasons: some simply related to the beauty and content of the writing, some deeply personal, and some related to questions I’ve been wrestling with in regard to my own future as a writer. All in all, a perfect recipe for mental fixation.
I’ll start with the least vulnerable of these: writing and content. But first, a quick storyline. The book follows the lives of two couples: their faith stories, their courtship stories, and the blending together of their lives as the husbands eventually co-pastor a church together in New York City.
Cara Wall’s writing captured me with its poignant simplicity. While I found her phrasing magical, it was deceptively plain. It read so naturally that I was unprepared for the many gut punches it delivered as I was carried along on the gentle waves of her narrative. I was emotionally overcome on multiple occasions, sometimes simply because I found her prose beautiful, sometimes because the words were profoundly truthful.
As for content, I’ve never read a fictional story as natural and honest about faith. Never. Even now, as I thumb through the pages and reread snippets, her writing stirs up some sort of primal response I have a hard time putting a finger on. The thing about faith is, while it’s a priceless treasure for those who possess it, it’s also hard. It’s messy. It wreaks havoc in people’s lives. It saves them, too, of course, and The Dearly Beloved shies away from none of it. Wall is unflinchingly candid about the myriad ways that faith emerges and is practiced within the walls of churches, sometimes in quite unorthodox ways. The narrative may not always line up with biblical ideals, but it’s honest. And I loved this book for its honesty.
Also, I love Wall’s relational insights, particularly between the two wives who do not have a natural affinity for one another. Their relationship alone is worth the read.
Now, for the personal. One of the subplots of the story deals with the autism diagnosis of one of the couple’s sons. In an era when little was known about the condition and resources were minimal at best, the couple undergoes a trial that neither one is prepared for. What resonated so deeply for me was the faith struggle that ensued for Charles, the father. As a pastor who was particularly gifted as a comforter, he suddenly finds his past words to parishioners in their various sufferings paltry and hollow. His anger toward God consumes him, leaving him a shell of his former self.
I’ve been down this road. I walked with a child who had a life-threatening illness for over a decade, and I know that dark tunnel of anger with God. At times I felt like Wall had gotten a hold of my journals from those years and stole my bitterness off the pages. And even though I’m on the other side of that season, Charles’ struggle was cathartic for me.
Lastly, The Dearly Beloved stirred up all manner of conflict in me as a writer. Recently, after much prayer, wrestling, and suppression of doubts, I have decided to pursue a Master of Fine Arts (MFA) in fiction after I conclude my bachelor’s in creative writing next March. And let me tell you, no one is more surprised than I am. The short story is, after two years of God convincing me to start calling myself a writer, the onion layers have continued to be peeled away until I’ve realized that being a novelist is the desire of my heart. And while there is absolutely no need to get an MFA for this pursuit, it seems the best path for me.
In light of this new direction, I’m thinking a lot about what my writing might look like. There are writers who are Christians and then there are Christian writers, the main difference being what market they write for, and while I don’t see one as being more “correct” than the other, if I’m honest, I’d rather be the former. I have a bit of a personal bias against the inspirational market, probably unfairly. But I have perceived it in much the way I perceive a lot of Christian media: Cliché or reductive or flimsy, or all of the above.
The problem is, I seem to have a hard time leaving God out of my fiction writing. He ends up weaving into my character’s thoughts and lives, I suppose because He is intimately woven into mine. The Dearly Beloved is a beautiful example of a book written for the secular market that addresses faith and includes God, and while that excites me, I feel a check in my spirit when I contemplate my motives. I want to follow God, and not avoid one market or the other based on negative bias, or worse, pride. And to be frank, at the end of the day, there is no guarantee either market will have me. So, there’s that.
I have no conclusion to my writing dilemma at the moment, but I have concluded that Cara Wall wrote a stunning book and like my friend who placed it in my hands, I now pass it into yours, though not quite as tangibly. I hope you’ll find a copy of The Dearly Beloved. And please let me know if you read it. I’d love to hear your thoughts!