Cara Wall’s debut novel, Dearly Beloved, takes on the big questions of faith, friendship, marriage, and loyalty. Centered on two ministers, their wives and families, and their Presbyterian church in New York City’s Greenwich Village, the novel is inspired by Wall’s own family and the historic Village churches that have been a part of her life.
The story follows two couples, the Barretts and the McNallys, who meet in 1963 when the husbands become copastors at the Third Presbyterian Church. It is an intimate portrait of marriage and relationships, reaching back into the couples’ early lives and courtships and the men’s years together ministering to their congregation through difficult times.
Wall’s parents grew up Nazarene (an evangelical Christian denomination) in small towns, met at a church picnic in Oklahoma, and, in 1965, packed up their Volkswagen Bug and moved to New York City. Her mother got a job at the First Presbyterian Church on Fifth Avenue and 12th Street and has been part of the church community since. “My parents are both religious and members at First Presbyterian,” Wall says, adding, “Dad’s mom had a vision of an angel while she was hanging clothes and became religious.”
First Presbyterian had two ministers—a situation that Wall obviously drew on when she started to write her novel 13 years ago, after graduating from Stanford and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. “The ministers I grew up with at First Presbyterian were very dynamic and charismatic,” she says. “We were close to them. Also, it was in 2004; I was reading Happy All the Time by Laurie Colwin, and that put me in a headspace of two couples. I enjoyed writing four characters, because I could incorporate all my ideas about faith—I had four different people to attribute them to.”
In the years that followed, Wall worked on the novel on and off. She taught middle school and took a break from writing the book when she had her daughter. Then in 2008, with “a rough draft of 120 pages, a sketch really,” she picked Dearly Beloved up again.
At a mom’s night at Grace Church School in the East Village in 2017, Wall met agent Wendy Levinson and told her about the novel she had been working on for more than a decade. Levinson was at the Harvey Klinger Agency after a career that included editorial stints and scouting for TV and movies (“I left L.A. after my second car was stolen,” she tells me). She asked to see the manuscript.
“It was immediately apparent to me that this novel was something wonderful,” Levinson says. “It was so beautifully restrained and psychologically insightful. I love ensemble pieces and was riveted from the beginning.”
For her part, Wall says she was ready to find an agent. “I wasn’t desperate, but Wendy liked it right away, and we discussed it and she felt it was clean and finished and ready to go out.” Levinson sent it to a few editors in fall 2017, and more widely after the holidays. “There was some flurry,” Wall says, “and then Marysue swooped in.”
Levinson knew that Marysue Rucci, v-p and editor-in-chief at Simon & Schuster, liked “thoughtful books that shed light on a subject.” Levinson also knew Rucci from when they were both editorial assistants at HarperCollins. (Rucci was surprised at their celebratory lunch: she had no idea it was “that Wendy” because Levinson had changed her name when she married.)
Rucci received the manuscript early one day in January and sent Levinson an email at 10 p.m. that night to tell her how much she loved the book. “I cannot believe how assured and moving the narrative is,” Rucci wrote. “What a feat of balance and penetration she has into the very specific and corporal as well as the philosophical/spiritual. It’s the kind of novel I absolutely love to read.”
The day after a phone conversation with Wall, Rucci preempted Dearly Beloved, buying world rights for a “healthy six figures.” When the news came, Wall says that she was “sitting through a middle school performance of the Wizard of Oz—I took the call in the school bathroom.” She especially liked what Rucci had to say about Dearly Beloved: “Marysue saw it as a locked-room mystery with these four characters thrown together for 40 years.”
“Just reading the opening, I knew I was in the hands of someone who had thought long and hard about marriage, friendships, and faith,” Rucci says. “I saw the wisdom on the first page. The story spans all ages, genders, beliefs, sexual orientations.” She sent it around in-house to ecstatic response, and the quotes she received populate the galley. “I want to show the universal appeal of Dearly Beloved,” she adds, noting also that the themes resonated with her personally.
“What is faith, and how do you hold on to it?” Rucci asks. “Not just faith in God but faith in humanity.”
Dearly Beloved reflects Wall’s fascination with relationships, especially marriage. “People never reveal too much about their marriage, because if they say something, you will remember it and it will color your opinions,” she says. “So what happens in a marriage is usually private.” And she says that she’s intrigued with how communities are built and broken and rebuilt—“how you learn to deal with people in your group or community whom you don’t like. You can’t like everyone.”
The contract was signed in April 2018, and the enthusiasm led Rucci to push publication from this fall to August, with marketing plans that include intimate media dinners and lunches, galley giveaways at BookExpo, and, in September, right after pub, a bicoastal tour.
And the launch? At the First Presbyterian Church on Fifth Avenue—what better place?