Reading guide for The Sunken Cathedral by Kate Walbert

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The Sunken Cathedral

by Kate Walbert

The Sunken Cathedral by Kate Walbert X
The Sunken Cathedral by Kate Walbert
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     Not Yet Rated
  • First Published:
    Jun 2015, 224 pages
    Paperback:
    Mar 2016, 224 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Davida Chazan
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Reading Guide Questions Print Excerpt

Please be aware that this discussion guide will contain spoilers!

  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?


Unless otherwise stated, this discussion guide is reprinted with the permission of Scribner. Any page references refer to a USA edition of the book, usually the trade paperback version, and may vary in other editions.

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