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What Happened to Sophie Wilder Paperback – Deckle Edge, May 29, 2012
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Charlie Blakeman, the narrator of approximately half of the novel, met Sophie Wilder, orphaned at eighteen, in a writing class at a small New Jersey college. At the time of the telling of the story, both of them have been published, Sophie with much more success with her collection of short stories than Charlie with his novel. At the time Charlie is living in a large house with his cousin Max Blakeman, a film critic. And there in New York City, they throw lots of parties. Sophie unexpectedly shows up, no longer married to Tom Crane whom she also met at the New Jersey college, a total mismatch. Tom too had lost his parents early in life, one to death in a fire and the other, his father, by abandonment. And that's where Sophie's story--well, a story within a story--takes off: "He [Tom's father whom she meets very unexpectedly] was her character now." (page 122) That is key to this novel, that Tom's father she is fashioning into a fiction, the very father Tom wants nothing to do with.
But the second half of that sentence is important: "and she [Sophie] looked upon him as God looks upon all the benighted."
As I read the novel, I knew the author had an extensive literary background. But I also sensed that he has read Michael Cunningham and Marilynne Robinson, especially "Gideon." But Sophie is a mystery, hence the title of the novel. She appears and disappears, and Charlie Blakeman has concerns about his friend whom he dated seriously while they were in college although Sophie often slept also with other male students and at least one female, a book seller in NYC.
For reasons the reader will not understand for a while--actually may never really understand--Sophie has become a devout Roman Catholic. This is where I think the Marilynne Robinson influence comes into the novel because not only is Beha's style similar to hers--and she did, you recall, receive a Pulitzer!--but so is the subject matter: religion.
This is a novel about faith and doubt, about love, about ambition, all told in elegant prose.
I strongly suspect this novel will be given at least one literary award. And I wouldn't be surprised if it were the Pulitzer. After all, other first-time novelists have won it.
Yes the book moves slow through most of it, but that is its purpose...this is a character study, not a plot driven book. BUT toward the end, things pick up in the plot to create a chemical reaction in the words that bring all the elements together. And that is the beauty of the book...the interweaving of the past and present story lines that come together at the end in a very haunting and chilling fashion. It is an effective way to get to know the characters, if you invest yourself into the book that is.
And I hear a lot of people talk about the religious undertones in the book, but I found that the religious aspects were just apart of the bigger story, along with concepts about friendship, love, writing, etc etc. The story is about these characters and the way their lives weaved together. Everything else is secondary.
1) I gave it four stars because, although I really liked it a lot, there were a couple crucial transitional moments in the story where a touch more brilliance in the writing would have made the book an instant classic, and the absence was felt in my opinion.
2) My interpretation is that the characters in the book are trying to do what the author is trying to do, move beyond the rubble of tradition dismantled by snarky sarcasm and disbelief to something new but meaningful (The timing is perfect as the hipster movement collapses inward). As such, the book attempts to stake out a new literature and I think it largely succeeds. But it means the writing was careful and deliberate, and I think the experience is best when the reading is conducted in the same spirit. Tear through this book at peril of missing nuances of the writing and the story. Pay particular attention to the last few pages, I think there is more going on here than immediately appears.
3) The author was on an NPR interview, fresh air maybe? And I don't think I'd have understood or enjoyed the book as well without it. The interview is not a spoiler and I recommend it in preparation for the book.