Four people, one church

Cara Wall writes beautifully about something novelists rarely address: a mainline Protestant congregation.

Here is a rare find: a novel that is not only compelling and thoughtfully written, made of beautiful sentences and tenderly created characters, but that is also about an aspect of American life rarely treated these days in fiction: the mainline Protes­tant church.

First-time novelist Cara Wall tells the story of two ministers and their wives, who are called to a large Presbyterian church in New York City in the early 1960s and spend their lives ministering there. Each individual in the foursome gets equal treatment—their stories, their inner lives, their histories, and their perceptions of each other are handled like a cube that is slowly turned over in the reader’s hands. They become increasingly interconnected, until they realize that “there was only one call. They were, the four of them, married to each other, in a strange way. They had turned in their quarters, and the church had given them a silver dollar.”

But it takes a long time for this foursome to develop. Nan and James—one of the pairs—meet in Chicago. Her father is a beloved minister in a small southern town. He comes from a family afflicted with alcoholism, poverty, and the effects of PTSD. The other pair, Lily and Charles, meet in Boston. Her life is most profoundly shaped by the death of her parents in a car accident, and his by a father who is an academic all-star at Harvard and rejects his son’s ministerial calling.