It’s hurricane season in Pinellas. And that means downpours, floods, and … surrealism? These elements come together in Rebecca Lowry Warchut’s debut novel “Catastrophe Theory” (Woodhall Press, October 2022), which brings a simmering family drama inside the unbreachable walls of St. Pete’s iconic Dalí museum – in the middle of a category five storm.
At 18 years old, Vera comes to St. Pete for a surgery to save her sight. But her mother, Eliza, has an ulterior motive: She wants to visit Vera’s biological mother, Lucia, who is the assistant director of St. Pete’s Dalítorium (Warchut’s clever rendering of our own Dalí museum). As their fateful visit unfolds, we learn of Eliza and Lucia’s youthful obsession with the famous surrealist, their pact to care for the infant Vera, and the heart-wrenching conflict that drew them apart. Young love blossoms when Vera meets Lucia’s assistant, and teenage antics ensue. Trouble arrives with the appearance of Vera’s long-lost father, a talented magician – and equally accomplished thief.
And this is all before the hundred-year hurricane traps everyone inside the museum.
If it sounds a little like a soap opera, it is. And the characters can feel, at times, a bit one-dimensional, doomed to extravagantly repeat their own worst character traits: Lucia, for instance, spends much of the book obsessively focused on a promotion, even when it hurts those around her. And Vera, sight restored, goes on a teenage spree that would put Ferris Bueller to shame.
Even so, the book absolutely sparkles with imaginative touches that proclaim the author’s love and deep knowledge of her subject. Her descriptions of Dalí’s work are luminous, and her insight into his life and work equally fascinating. In her own surrealist experiment, she imagines the Dalítorium filled with a dozen deepfake Dalís – screens that conjure an electronic ghost of the artist. Deepfake Dalí always seems to know what the characters are thinking, hilariously flickering to life with just the right quotation for their soul-searching.
Then there’s catastrophe theory itself, a mathematical premise examined in Dalí’s later work, exploring how small shifts contribute to sudden, dramatic change. It is also an important theme in the novel, as the characters ponder how small choices in their interconnected histories have brought them to this perilous point.
As sensational as its plot can be, the “Catastrophe Theory” raises heartfelt questions: What does it mean to be a family? How can we learn to trust again when our hearts are broken? And if the Big One finally came along, what would we want to save?