I will be honest and say that the last few times I was choosing a new book to read I put this particular one off to the side and thought … another time perhaps. I think I was a little weary of a story that was deeply rooted in faith and the relationship of men and women with God. I don’t go to church and it’s not a part of society that I have particularly engaged with on any meaningful level. So I wondered if I could form enough of a connection with events and characters to keep me involved. But I finally put my reservations aside and made it my book of choice.
The Dearly Beloved is a story about faith and four people – James, Nan, Charles and Lily – and the journey they take with God and each other throughout their lives. Each of them have a different perspective on religion which is formed in their early years by events and the circumstances of their upbringings.
Lily is a devout non-believer. It is something that she ridgely carries in the core of her being – God does not exist. This underlying bedrock that spans her whole life is formed in the aftermath of the early death of her parents in a car accident when she was 15 years old. Charles is the son of an Harvard academic and grew up being told that knowledge, facts and logic should underpin society and how we live. But after attending a lecture at university which posed some simple but fundamental questions, he finds and forms a deep connection to God which sets him on the path to become a Minister. So one of the surprises of the book is that Lily marries Charles. But more on that later.
Nan is the character that believes from the very beginning. Her father is a Minister in Mississippi. Through his teaching and wise loving influence, she grows up a gentle woman with an undeniable and unshakable faith in a kind and benevolent God. This relationship is so important, she decides it is the one thing she would never give up, even for love. James is a determined fighter from a large family in the down and out part of his home town. His father is an alcoholic, a condition which was brought on by the horrors he experienced in the second world war. James doesn’t want to be anything like his father but he knows that staying where he was born will lead him to an alcohol sodden existence. The difficulties he sees during these early years creates a burning desire within him to stamp out the cruel inequities of life. He finds the avenue to do this via faith and the Ministry but he readily admits that he doesn’t know if God exists. Despite this James and Nan meet, fall in love and get married.
In a very beautiful and lyrical way, we follow Charles, Lily, Nan and James as they are tested throughout their lives and see how these challenges affect their perception of God and faith in general, both on an individual level via their own thoughts, but also through their relationships with their spouses and their friendships with each other. James and Charles end up as ministers at the same church in the early 1960’s and become colleagues and friends despite their very different approaches to how they preach to their congregation. They support and defend each other when difficulties are encountered. James allows his zeal for social justice to alienate him from his congregation which almost sees him dismissed from his post. Charles almost abandons his posting as he despairs over how to reconcile faith and God’s plan with the life of his severely autistic son. James finds himself lost as he is unable to comfort Nan through a great crisis in her life and Charles struggles with the need to make his wife less sad and closed off. The care and fidelity of friendship they have for one another across the years sustains and assists them through the dark times.
Nan and Lily’s relationship is far more fraught and brittle and can be characterised by saying it’s one of a struggle for understanding, connection and acceptance of who the other is. They have their own trials. Nan desperately wants children but suffers multiple miscarriages through the years that makes her ask God why. This is made worse when Lily, who has never wanted a family, becomes pregnant, eventually having twins. Each of the women grapples with what this means, why one is being denied and the other is being given what she doesn’t want. There are times and instances when there is a detente of sorts between them, when they realise that they can offer the other something but it is never really lasting. They are far too different people and occupy opposite ends on the belief spectrum to be able to bridge the gap in any real meaningful way.
This is all conveyed by the author in an almost poetic style that helps give weight to the emotional and spiritual issues all the characters face. It is rarely ever too much and I never felt like I was being preached to and that was one of the fears I had previous to reading the book. Yes it’s about faith and God, but it is not trying to convert you. It is using the relationship the characters have with those things as the way to tell the story of their lives. It is the frame around all that happens but it is not trying to drag you into that belief system. It is simple showing you how it interacts with the lives of these four people. And I was very comforted by that when reading.
The author very deftly creates Charles, Lily, Nan and James as separate people with deep seated reasons for the way they are and the outlook they have. That doesn’t mean that they are all likable. Lily is undoubtedly the hardest to connect to but that is reflective of who she is as a person. Compact. Distant. Unflinching. Cold. But it almost makes her the most complex and complicated. I never really got an understanding of why she married Charles, a man who represented all that she disagreed with when it came to religion. I don’t think that was the fault of the author. I just don’t think Lily ever really knew. Nan, however, was very personable and approachable as a character but could almost be called the most bland or boring of the four. She was the most fully formed at the beginning of the book in relation to her relationship with God but unwound with the slow moving tragedy of her childlessness. This is all presented to us in a dignified and respectful way. No cheap wins. No mindless hardships. Everything that happens connects back to the characters in meaningful ways.
Another thing I liked was that the author successfully asks the reader not to pick sides. She is not saying that any one of the characters is better or more correct than the others. She is putting them in front of us as imperfect human beings and showing us how they deal with issues and events that we all could experience in our own lives. Charles, Lily, Nan and James cope through their faith (or lack of) and the relationship they have with each other. She gives them an emotional depth which is not often found in modern books and that was quite refreshing to read.
There is much more to this book than I have been able to address here. I know the presence of God and faith will mean that this book is not for everyone and that is ok. We are each comfortable with different things. I was surprised by how much I enjoyed it and how much it made me think about people and how we react to different things. The Dearly Beloved is a very thoughtful book about faith but also love, friendship, acceptance and struggle.
My recommendation is give it a go.
Rating: 4 Stars
(Header Image: Sarah Kreig)