The Sunken Cathedral

A Novel

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About The Book

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).

Reading Group Guide
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? 

 
About The Author
Photograph by 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 ten 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.

Product Details
  • Publisher: Scribner (March 2016)
  • Length: 224 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781476799360

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Raves and Reviews

The Sunken Cathedral is a gem of a novel—lyrical, ominous, and unexpectedly funny. Kate Walbert has somehow managed to write an elegy for a Manhattan that still exists, and characters who—like most of us—would prefer not to think about their impending doom.”

– Tom Perrotta, author of The Leftovers

“Kate Walbert’s frightening, timely novel follows an achingly particular cast, small flames unexpectedly doused, so that the prevailing uncertainty of what it is to be alive rises like the waters flooding coasts. The insufficiencies of sheltering-in against Sudden Weather turn Who We Are Stories into Who Are We plaints, yet Walbert is wise and funny and compassionate, and she gifts The Sunken Cathedral with birds and strokes of blue. ‘Much to learn from blue,’ a painter considers, and much to learn from this ambitiously made, great fiction.”

– Christine Schutt, author of Florida and All Souls

“The Sunken Cathedral is impressionistic, a book of drifting shadows and blazing clarity; Kate Walbert has written a gorgeous and moving requiem for a people and a city that are not yet lost. A magnificent achievement.”

– Lauren Groff, author of Fates and Furies

“Hypnotic…though the novel seems to be set in the present,it feels more menacing than our current world, with sudden, dangerous stormsand terrorism drills in school. An unconventional and unsettling novel withvivid imagery and passages of pure poetry.”

– Library Journal, starred review

“[A] sense of a remembered world that lives on just beneath the ever-changing surface is at the heart of Kate Walbert’s stunning new novel, The Sunken Cathedral. A powerful elegy for a fading New York City and for the planet as a whole, it is also a deeply human story, full of rich and complex characters…[Walbert] writes with such precision that she’s able to pack 80 years worth of personal and world history — war, climate change, marriage, parenthood, friendship, death,grace, love, petty betrayal, and sudden violence — into a slim volume. She’s also very funny… the footnotes work beautifully…audacious…masterful.”

– J. Courtney Sullivan, The Boston Globe

“Walbert writes unlike anyone I’ve read before, imbuing each of her finely-tuned sentences with stunning detail. Trust me: You won’t ever have been more eager to read the footnotes in your life.”

– Bustle

“Insightful…Like so many elements of this rich new novel, its title points backward and forward… though Walbert never allows her narrative to dissolve into stream of consciousness, she manipulates time and space as though they were as viscous as oils. And she allows the central plot to drip off the edges of this canvas. That effect is structurally emphasized by footnotes that read like little prose poems of ineffable grace... Some of these notes are long, taking up more than two pages, and some contain incidents as moving and significant as anything in the main text of the novel,a strategy that implicitly challenges what’s central and what’s tangential in our lives… Walbert’s narrative method is a gentle lesson in empathy, a reminder that it’s only artifice and egotism that give us the misimpression that we’re the central protagonist of the life we’re composing.”

– Ron Charles, The Washington Post

“Kate Walbert's TheSunken Cathedral paintsan elegant picture of a LowerManhattan neighborhood and its citizens, at risk from both ‘suddenweather’ and relentless gentrification.”

– Shelf Awareness

“Walbert tunes in toa complex chorus of female characters in contemporary Manhattan, a cityrecently altered by climate change, tragedy and new wealth...The tapestry ofvoices weave a rich pattern, and the novel is strengthened by Walbert’s use offootnotes, which allow her characters’ thoughts to move freely from the presentto the past, uncovering private or previously unshared memories…TheSunken Cathedral is a reference to a piano sonata by Debussythat itself alludes to the mythical story of a cathedral that rises up from thesea. Like Debussy’s impressionistic music, the novel is poetic, full of lyricalimagery and subtle shifts of tone. Ambitious,elegiac and occasionally even funny, TheSunken Cathedral is an emotionally resonant story of people caught ina time of unease and change—and a striking portrait of the way we livenow.”

– Lauren Bufferd, BookPage

“[A] shimmering newnovel…At its heart is a wonderful pair of widowed French-born friendswho both survived World War II, married Americans, and raised their onlychildren together…Walbert has beenrightly celebrated for her ability to capture the variety and vulnerability ofwomen's lives with a combination of lyricism and brawn…In TheSunken Cathedral, she again creates multiple narrative strands whicheventually dovetail as satisfyingly as tightly fitted joints on awell-constructed rocking chair. But then she takes her remarkable technical prowess to a newlevel with long footnotes…This literal subtext forms a secondary narrativeline that cleverly reflects the way attention is so often fragmented…abeautiful tribute to a city that's continually in flux.”

– Heller McAlpin, NPR.org

“Kate Walbert’s fourth novel, The Sunken Cathedral, makes a music that is dissonant, haunting, vibrant, moving and wise. It may be her best work yet, and may spark youto go find all her prior books… Walbert packs everything into [a] series ofbraided narratives: deliciously human, memorable characters; the sensuousphysical world (‘a collection of wet smells, furtive cigarettes, coffee’); atart omniscience (though points of view alternate) shepherding a brisk pace.Best, she infuses The Sunken Cathedral(an apt, eerie image) with a sense of time’s relentlessness (figuring often asthreatening weather): how it pools and eddies, drowns or sweeps away what oncemattered — and how we respond to our arbitrary placement in it… Time isdeepened in these pages by commentaries or expansions in the form of longfootnotes — a form I’ve rarely liked elsewhere but which works powerfully here…Walbert’s past oeuvre has notably examined — in a spiky, oblique prose style —the predicaments of women. She accomplishes that here again brilliantly, butthis time her style allows easier entry, and her scope widens… Sharp, richly imagined, The Sunken Cathedral serves — like much of Walbert’s work —as a lovely manifesto: Attention must be paid.”

– Joan Frank, The San Francisco Chronicle

“Walbert is a writerwith the power to alter your view of the world and of what constitutes story…The Sunken Cathedral is an experience, afriend, an intellectual companion, a jewel with many facets…a collection ofobservations and impressions, a carefully curated collection of words that theauthor has polished to a brilliant shine.”

– Martha Sheridan, The Dallas Morning News

“Kate Walbert not only sees vanishing women — a pair ofwidows in their 80s, the suddenly uncertain mother of a teenage son, amiddle-aged art historian with visions of a drowning city — but paints theirlives in indelibly rich and vibrant colors in her stunning new novel, The Sunken Cathedral… Walbert conjures [the] past as she embodiesthe present, in shimmeringly lovely prose embedded with jewellike details.Marie's story becomes, in essence, a love story, although the heartbreaking endof one: She is the sole survivor of a happy marriage. Walbert capturesperfectly Marie's precise sense of loss.”

– Colette Bancroft, Tampa Bay Times

“[Walbert] gives us prose that is poetic, luscious, and utterly exquisite, while remaining both accessibleand elusive. She also litters her story with footnotes…these tidbits addextra color to an already brilliantly vibrant mosaic…I haven't read a book thisbeautifully written since Ondaatje's The English Patient…I cannot recommend it more highly.”

– Davida Chazen, BookBrowse

“In The SunkenCathedral, Kate Walbert renders an impressionistic portrayal of animperiled New York, whose residents live with the threat of weather surges andterrorism in a city that is at once mythical and real…[a] brilliant allegory… fascinating characters and theirbackstories propel the novel from serenity to angst, as each character preparesfor the coming deluge.”

– Joseph Peschel, St. Louis Post-Dispatch

"Kate Walbert sees in a manner that exalts the everyday into poetry and gives our deepest desires an unexpected and brilliant expression. She is among our very best writers, which The Sunken Cathedral makes abundantly clear."

– Ann Packer, author of The Children's Crusade and The Dive from Clausen's Pier

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