The Santa Maria del Mar of Barcelona, Catalonia is a wonder of medieval dedication, its beauty due in no small part to the speed of its construction; erected between 1329 and 1383, the church has a purity of design that distinguishes it from similar buildings of the period. Ildefonso Falcones' Cathedral Of The Sea pays homage to Santa Maria by following its development through the eyes of a man who spends the best parts of his life in its shadow. Originally published in Spanish in 2006 to huge success and acclaim, Cathedral shares its inspiration's singularity of purpose, with a momentum that pushes steadily forward for 600 pages. The novel fails to match Santa Maria's transcendent beauty, but that doesn't make it any less enjoyable.
When Bernat Estanyol is forced to flee from his ancestral lands, he and his son Arnau find refuge in the city of Barcelona, where any serf can win his freedom if he stays a citizen for a year and a day. As Bernat struggles to make ends meet, Arnau befriends Joan, a young boy with an equally troubled past, and the two eventually become adopted brothers. Arnau also develops a bond with the Santa Maria church, and when he's forced to support himself and Joan, he joins the bastiax, the laborers who transport stones from a nearby quarry to the church grounds. Over the next 50 years, Arnau's fate brings him fortune and temptation, while Joan's leads to religious vows and the Inquisition. All the while, the Santa Maria endures.
Cathedral is an artless book; the translated prose is perfunctory, the characters speak in flat, declarative sentences, and most of the plot twists were played out when the Virgin Mary was bemoaning Bethlehem's lack of Comfort Inns. There's also a certain clumsiness to Falcones' portrayal of sensuality—women's bodies are described in the panting tones of a Leisure Suit Larry game, and a December-May romance between Arnau and his ward comes off as sketchy no matter how sincere (and suffering) both parties profess to be. What the novel lacks in grace, though, it makes up for in good old-fashioned melodrama. Cathedral is solid summer reading: immersive, expertly paced, and fundamentally good-hearted. The real trick is finding room for its bulk in the beach bag.