14 January 2008

Book Review: Sophie’s Choice by William Styron

2008 TBR Challenge #3

Sophie’s Choice In the summer of 1947, a young southern writer - known only by the nickname ‘Stingo’ - moves into a pink boarding-house in New York City. There he plans to write his first novel, a bound-to-be-blockbuster of Tidewater Virginia. He’s soon distracted by the opportunity to be the third wheel in the strange relationship being carried on upstairs between Nathan Landau and Sophie Z. The former is a charming bully, the latter a survivor of Auschwitz. Stingo is entranced by her beauty, but also by her story, which she gradually reveals to him in not-always-truthful bits and pieces. Eventually he manages to piece together her tale, including the thing she never told to anyone else - the choice she had to make.

After finishing this book I was amazed. I looked it up on Amazon, and sure enough most of the reviews were 5 star; in fact, of over two hundred only 21 were 3 stars or fewer, placing me squarely in the minority. This is, as I believed, a much-acclaimed and raved-about book, yet it is a book I think I must have been mad to continue reading. I only persevered because I thought, given how great it’s meant to be, the choice of the title would be a stunning compensation for all that went before. It wasn’t.

How did I loathe thee? Let me count the ways ... The narrator was mildly entertaining at first, until I realised he was utterly incapable of keeping either his mind or his pen out of the gutter. He was obsessed with sex - his and everyone else’s - and happily took long detours away from Sophie’s story to chronicle his attempts to get it. Every female he knew was either a dog or a potential source of it, and he worked it in at seemingly every opportunity - frequently, gratuitously, and vulgarly. He was also a fool for becoming involved with Nathan and Sophie when any sane person would have kept well clear of such an impending disaster zone, and a pretentious git for his habit of throwing around words that sent even me running for the dictionary. I wished there could have been a way to tell the story without his presence. Then I started wishing Styron had chosen to write about Wanda instead. She was a far more interesting and courageous character than ineffectual, passive Sophie could ever hope to be, and one of the extremely few things I actually liked.

I kept (idiotically) hoping the nature of the choice would be dramatic enough to redeem it somewhat. Objectively, it was: about the worst one anyone could be faced with. Subjectively, it bombed. The whole scene fell terribly flat and was followed, not by Sophie’s reaction, but by an attempt to psychoanalyse the man who forced her it make it. But the worst thing, for me, was by far Stingo’s one-track mind. It was utterly tasteless and left me feeling almost as if I needed to disinfect my brain. Part of me is actually tempted to commit the ultimate sacrilege: shred the damn thing into the compost where it might do some good, and where no-one else will make the mistake of reading it. If not for Wanda, it would have scored a big fat E (perhaps for Execrable).

On the bright side, though, there’s still 50 weeks of the reading year left and things can only go up from here.

Rating: D-

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Header image shows detail of A Young Girl Reading by Jean-Honoré Fragonard, c. 1776