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Coping With Calamity In Shimmering 'Cathedral'

Back when I was losing sleep over various scenarios that could befall my aging parents, a friend would try to calm me with assurances that at most one of those things would happen, so they weren't worth worrying about in advance.

This came to mind as I read Kate Walbert's shimmering new novel, The Sunken Cathedral, which concerns a circle of New Yorkers living uneasily under amorphous threats of impending disaster — from the debilitations and losses of old age to the next terrorist attack, big storm, or glassy high-rise condominium tower intruding on their beloved Chelsea neighborhood.

In Walbert's book, as in my parents' lives, many of the calamities her characters worry about actually do come to pass, plus some that hadn't even occurred to them — but they cope. What else can you do?

The Sunken Cathedral — which takes its title from Claude Debussy's piano prelude — depicts a rapidly changing city whose old inhabitants, with their loving marriages and close friendships, are being washed away by time and tides. At its heart is a wonderful pair of widowed French-born friends who both survived World War II, married Americans and raised their only children together. We meet Simone and Marie as they pluckily enroll in a painting class, taught in a decrepit building by a man named Sid Morris who's as old as they are.

Flirtatious Simone "still sleeps with lotioned hands in yellow dishwater gloves, her hair set, eyebrows pencil-drawn just so: a GI wife." As for Marie, she soldiers on stalwartly at 85, even after losing her nearest and dearest. When she breaks an ankle on a foolhardy mission, her son tries to persuade her to move out of the overstuffed Chelsea brownstone she and his father bought cheap more than 50 years earlier, well before the High Line park sent property values surging even higher than water levels. But she deflects her son's arguments about the dangers of living in Flood Zone A: "There are worse ways to go," she argues. "It's weather ... I survived the Blitz."

Walbert has been rightly celebrated for her ability to capture the variety and vulnerability of women's lives with a combination of lyricism and brawn. Our Kind and A Short History of Women offered complex, sensitive explorations of women pushing against society's constraints over the past century. In The Sunken Cathedral, she again creates multiple narrative strands that eventually dovetail as satisfyingly as tightly fitted joints on a well-constructed rocking chair. But then she takes her remarkable technical prowess to a new level with long footnotes that plumb her characters' meandering thoughts while they converse with others. This literal subtext forms a secondary narrative line that cleverly reflects the way attention is so often fragmented.

It also captures her characters' deepest inner lives, which often return to haunting memories, like Marie's flashbacks to watching French neighbors make off with her mother's loom and pots while she hid, shivering, in an orchard of rotten apricots after the rest of her family was taken away for reasons 7-year-old Marie couldn't fathom.

Walbert's cast spreads out — like water — to include a widening circle of people peripherally connected to Marie. This includes her upstairs tenant, a woman named Elizabeth who is increasingly insecure about her place in life as her teenage son morphs into a stranger and her husband gets lost in what she calls "hamster trances." A family assignment at her son's laughably progressive school — writing "Who We Are Stories" — throws Elizabeth into a panic. "Does everyone else have a composed life?" she wonders. "Is everyone else sure of how things should be? The choices they've made?"

Walbert's various cameos — including lonely school administrators and a famous movie star who's bought the brownstone behind Marie's — demonstrate that the answer is a resounding, reassuring no.

Occasionally, all the digressions and narrative offshoots can leave you feeling as if you've followed too many links on Wikipedia. And some just feel extraneous. Walbert also drops a few narrative bombs that stop us short, which I'll refrain from spelling out; one minor character's shocking fate is relegated to a footnote. Her point, of course, is that you never know what's going to hit you next. Or, as Elizabeth observes in the story she eventually writes for her son's school, "It is both true, and banal, that sometimes who you are changes in an instant."

In a way, The Sunken Cathedral is about going with that flow. It's a beautiful tribute to a city that's continually in flux.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Heller McAlpin is a New York-based critic who reviews books regularly for NPR.org, The Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, The Christian Science Monitor, The San Francisco Chronicle and other publications.
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