Summary and book reviews of The Sunken Cathedral by Kate Walbert

The Sunken Cathedral

by Kate Walbert

The Sunken Cathedral by Kate Walbert
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    Readers' Opinion:

     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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About this Book

Book Summary

A deeply moving novel that follows a cast of characters as they negotiate one of Manhattan's swiftly changing neighborhoods, extreme weather, and the unease of twenty-first-century life.

From the National Book Award nominee and author of the acclaimed, New York Times bestselling A Short History of Women, a deeply moving, "lyrical, ominous, and unexpectedly funny" (Tom Perrotta, author of The Leftovers) novel that follows a cast of characters as they negotiate one of Manhattan's swiftly changing neighborhoods, extreme weather, and the unease of twenty-first-century life.

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.

III

The mothers, dressed for exercise, gather on the steps of Progressive K–8—Stephanie G. at the center, forty-five, give or take, her hair in short braids, dandelions woven into the bands— Elizabeth sees her and sidesteps but too late.

"Elizabeth!" Stephanie G. calls. "Elizabeth!"

How had she agreed to the idea at all? Now Stephanie G. blocks her path, clearly determined to see the vision fulfilled: Who We Are stories line the hallways of Progressive K–8 like so many snowflake cutouts in winter, each sincere and beautiful and excruciatingly heartbreaking for reasons Elizabeth cannot name and does not want to examine. The idea had grown out of the school's pledge for better communication by way of stronger community, dialoguing through dialogue, something like that, one of those tautologically challenged declarations beloved by their new interim head of school—Dr. Constantine—an elderly woman whose early advocacy of sexual education in pre-K put her ...

Please be aware that this discussion guide may 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,...
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Reviews

BookBrowse Review

BookBrowse

Rather than swamp this review with further adjectives, I will simply say that I haven't read a book this beautifully written since Ondaatje's The English Patient. While I'm sure this book won't appeal to everyone, I'm certain that lovers of contemporary, literary fiction will enjoy this novel immensely, and I cannot recommend it more highly.   (Reviewed by Davida Chazan).

Full Review (596 words).

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Media Reviews

Booklist

This introspective novel isn't for everyone, but those who choose to wade into its pages will find their efforts richly rewarded.

Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. Whether she is being technically exact or ingeniously playful, above or below the (High) line, Walbert's wistful glimpse of women reaching out during their last days of independence offers a penetrating look at New York and the world, post-9/11, post-Sandy, preā€“the next disaster.

Library Journal

Starred Review. An unconventional and unsettling novel with vivid imagery and passages of pure poetry.

Kirkus Reviews

Starred Review. Elegant and elegiac.

Author Blurb Tom Perrotta, author of The Leftovers
The Sunken Cathedral is a gem of a novel - lyrical, ominous, and unexpectedly funny.

Author Blurb Christine Schutt, author of Florida and All Souls
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.

Author Blurb Lauren Groff, author of Arcadia and Monsters of Templeton
Kate Walbert has written a gorgeous and moving requiem for a people and a city that are not yet lost. A magnificent achievement.

Reader Reviews

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Beyond the Book

Impressionism in Literature

Kate Walbert's The Sunken Cathedral is an impressionistic novel. But what does that mean?

Monet's HaystackWhen we hear the word impressionism, the first things that come to mind are the names Monet, Degas, Cezanne and other artists who were part of this movement of painting and sculpture during the late 19th century. Their unique use of color and style, combined with their ability to express their impression of how they saw the world through their art, was a break from the realistic, practically photographic pieces of the Realism period that preceeded and overlapped with Impressionism.

Claude Debussy title=At about the same time, this movement also spilled over into the world of music. Most people believe that composers Ravel and Debussy were at its forefront (although ...

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