Molded by their backgrounds and childhood experiences, the individual members of two couples adopt beliefs which will define them—until they are confronted by a heart-wrenching challenge.
Writing with restrained lyricism, Wall’s debut—15 years in the making—offers a kind of literary chamber music, combining the viewpoints of a quartet of characters across multiple decades and events. Charles, the son of a Harvard professor, is a man reliant on research and insight. James, whose drunken father was broken by war, will grow up to be full of impatience and the urge to action. Nan, the daughter of a Southern minister, has learned patience and generosity while Lily, orphaned at 15, is happiest when withdrawn. Charles’ unswerving love for Lily is matched by James’ determination to marry Nan even though neither couple seems a natural fit. When both men opt for a life in the church, Nan is better equipped for the role of clergyman’s wife than independent, brittle Lily, who feels no obligation to conform. The four eventually connect when Charles and James are offered the joint ministry of Third Presbyterian Church in Greenwich Village. Old-fashioned in tone and subject matter, the story is set in the mid-20th century and evokes some of the stifling social norms of the era. Wall has a very precise sensibility, and there is no escaping the sense of tidy predetermination in the clear, fixed positions of her four figures and their various oppositions, seen through the debates, struggles, rejections, and consolations that arise among them. Finely drawn and paced and written with intense compassion, the novel shifts ground with a late development that will test and push forward each of the four, leading to a conclusion consistent with Wall’s grace and control.
A moving, eloquent exploration of faith and its response to the refining fire of life’s challenges.