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The Sunken Cathedral

A Novel

Read by Kate Walbert

From the highly acclaimed, bestselling National Book Award nominee, a “funny…beautiful…audacious…masterful” (J. Courtney Sullivan, The Boston Globe) novel about the way memory haunts and shapes the present.

Marie and Simone, friends for decades, were once immigrants to the city, survivors of World War II in Europe. Now widows living alone in Chelsea, they remain robust, engaged, and adventurous, even as the vistas from their past interrupt their present. Helen is an art historian who takes a painting class with Marie and Simone. Sid Morris, their instructor, presides over a dusty studio in a tenement slated for condo conversion; he awakes the interest of both Simone and Marie. Elizabeth is Marie’s upstairs tenant, a woman convinced that others have a secret way of being, a confidence and certainty she lacks. She is increasingly unmoored—baffled by her teenage son, her husband, and the roles she is meant to play.

In a chorus of voices, Kate Walbert, a “wickedly smart, gorgeous writer” (The New York Times Book Review), explores the growing disconnect between the world of action her characters inhabit and the longings, desires, and doubts they experience. Interweaving long narrative footnotes, Walbert paints portraits of marriage, of friendship, and of love in its many facets, always limning the inner life, the place of deepest yearning and anxiety. The Sunken Cathedral is a stunningly beautiful, profoundly wise novel about the way we live now—“fascinating, moving, and significant” (Ron Charles, The Washington Post).

This reading group guide for The Sunken Cathedral includes an introduction, discussion questions, and ideas for enhancing your book club. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.

 

Introduction

Longtime friends and residents of New York City’s Chelsea district, Marie and Simone share memories of surviving the Second World War, emigrating from France to the United States, and falling in love. Both women take an art class at the School of Inspired Arts, where they encounter Helen, a retired art historian who, inspired by a Debussy prelude for piano, paints vivid compositions of the city submerged in water. Meanwhile, Marie’s upstairs tenant, Elizabeth, is preoccupied by a project at her son’s Progressive K–8 school and how it reflects on her. When an unprecedented storm threatens to flood Manhattan, Helen’s paintings take on an eerie prescience, and the lives of these four women intersect.

 

Topics and Questions for Discussion

1. The description of Sid Morris’s office and studio, with its “metal desk shoved against a cinder-blocked wall” and “reproduction of a predictable Van Gogh,” vividly reflects the instructor’s personality (page 5). Where else in The Sunken Cathedral do specific possessions reveal something about a character?

2. Narrative footnotes are interwoven throughout the novel. How does Walbert’s use of footnotes inform the structure and plot? How do the footnotes affect the sense of time in the novel?

3. On page 23, Marie thinks that age has made questions of meaning “less pressing, somehow; most things unexplainable anyway—words too quickly fall away, disappear; where, she isn’t sure, but they are suddenly gone; language jittery, unsustainable.” In what way does this unsustainable nature of language relate to the way historical detail is incorporated into the novel?

4. Walbert describes the “frenzy of the City’s vibrations” (page 101). How is New York City a character in the novel? In what ways do the street, setting, and weather animate the story?

5. Sid Morris’s friendship with Marie grows deeper after he tells her about his wife’s death. What does Gretchen’s scar that “still looked a little like love” say about her relationship with Sid (page 84)? How do Sid’s own emotional scars influence his behavior throughout the novel?

6. During her escape from occupied France, Marie recalls her mother describing the ancient cave paintings at Lascaux: “They are all creatures drawn by persons from the imagination. All the things we cannot know and wish for maybe” (page 99). Compare the similarities between the way Marie conjures fairies from her mother’s story (page 90) and the way Helen conjures fairies during her childhood (page 131). Where else in the novel is the restorative power of imagination acutely felt?

7. Walbert reveals the death of Carlos the police officer in a footnote to Bernice’s description of the Veterans Day commemorating her son’s death in Iraq (page 126). What does linking these very different events say about the nature of violence? Are there any other footnote juxtapositions you found especially provocative?

8. Helen’s father teaches her that Debussy’s “The Sunken Cathedral” is inspired by the legend of the lost City of Ys. Discuss the relationship between this “musical version of Impressionism,” Helen’s near-drowning in Great Falls, and her own paintings (page 130).

9. Although Elizabeth and Marie do not interact often, they share a view of the back garden presided over by the movie star’s cat, Roscoe. How do you interpret Marie’s desire to share the sudden blooming of the cherry tree with Elizabeth (page 165)? How does this relate to the overall themes of the book?

10. During her discussions with Sid, Marie often gets lost in her own thoughts that unfold as footnotes. In the footnote on page 196, Marie “kisses [Sid] and then, opening her eyes, she sees that it has not been Sid Morris at all, but Abe.” Why does Sid become Abe for Marie at this particular moment? What is the significance of this transformation?

11. Dr. Constantine decides to leave Progressive K–8 after using Google Earth to hone in on an image of what might have been her daughter’s shadow in New Zealand. What comment might the author be making about advancements in technology? How would you say technology affects the relationships in the novel?

 

Enhance Your Book Club

1. A number of works of art are referenced in the novel. Look up Matisse’s The Conversation, Debussy’s “La Cathédrale Engloutie,” and additional references that interest you from The Sunken Cathedral. Choose one and tell your book club how you identify with the work.

2. Walbert layers the world of The Sunken Cathedral with histories of inanimate objects—a maple tree, a painting. Share with your book club the histories of some of your own household objects, either through research, memories, or your imagination.

3. How have recent examples of “Sudden Weather” affected your life or the lives of people you know? 

 
Deborah Donenfeld

Kate Walbert is the author of six previous books of fiction: His Favorites; The Sunken Cathedral; A Short History of Women, a New York Times Book Review 10 Best Books of the Year and finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize; Our Kind, a National Book Award finalist; The Gardens of Kyoto; and the story collection Where She Went. Her work has appeared in The New YorkerThe Paris ReviewThe Best American Short Stories, and The O. Henry Prize stories. She lives with her family in New York City.

Deborah Donenfeld

Kate Walbert is the author of six previous books of fiction: His Favorites; The Sunken Cathedral; A Short History of Women, a New York Times Book Review 10 Best Books of the Year and finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize; Our Kind, a National Book Award finalist; The Gardens of Kyoto; and the story collection Where She Went. Her work has appeared in The New YorkerThe Paris ReviewThe Best American Short Stories, and The O. Henry Prize stories. She lives with her family in New York City.

More books from this author: Kate Walbert