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Not about Sophie or her choice
on 10 August 2015
This novel was not what I expected. Its fame had preceded it, so I was aware that it involved a concentration camp during WWII, and I also knew the nature of the 'choice' Sophie made. So I'd expected a moving, perhaps upsetting, story about the holocaust and the people caught up in it. However, that's not really what you get. In fact, very little of this 600 page plus novel is about Sophie, and much less her 'choice'. What you do get is a coming of age novel about an aspiring young male American author by the unlikely name of 'Stingo'. It details in great length his (generally unsuccessful) love life, and his friendship with Sophie's boyfriend, Nathan. He also has an unrequited love for Sophie herself - or rather for her good looks.
Sophie may be the title character, but somehow she remains a secondary one. I dislike this, as it feels dishonest, and also seems to marginalise the seriousness of her past. There is a really misogynistic tone to this book which irritated me hugely. This is unlike me as I'm not someone who gets greatly worked up about depiction of women in books. Most of what we know about Sophie relates to her looks. In fact, you strongly get the impression that if Sophie hadn't been beautiful, it's unlikely anyone would have cared less about her past or her 'choice'. The other women who live in the boarding house that Sophie, Stingo and Nathan are all tenants of, are described as 'dogs' or 'pigs'. No one so much as asks if they have a tragic past - obviously such histories are only worth finding out about if narrated by a pretty girl. Despite being intelligent - multi-lingual and musically gifted for starters - Sophie is generally depicted as weak and sweet, a permanent damsel in distress. Much is made of her minor inaccuracies in English, which of course the narrator finds greatly endearing (patronising so and so!), No one seems to respect Sophie for her strength in surviving the horrors she has, or for having made a new life in a foreign country where she knew no one, but managed to learn the language and hold down a job.
Nathan is the more interesting character, and to centre the book more explicitly on him would have been better. Stingo is likeable enough, although I saw him as something of a lazy authorial insert. I wasn't really that bothered about any of the characters, even Sophie, and I literally could not have cared less about Stingo's failed romances. At one point the narrative actually touches on writers using the holocaust as a way to sell books. I hate to say it, but it feels to me like that's what's happened here. Styron wanted to tell a story about Stingo and Nathan. Sophie could have been any old pretty, delicate woman caught in the middle. Why drag such a sensitive subject into it?
Overall, it is incredibly dull and overwritten and I skim read whole chapters (anything where Stingo took his clothes off for a start). There were many irritations, as detailed above, which frustrated me. Occasionally there are gleams of a good and interesting story, but they're crushed out by the sheer weight of irrelevant prose. The actual 'choice' scene is given about three pages towards the very end. I didn't even find it moving as you don't really get to read about Sophie's thought processes (it's all channelled via a third party) and you don't really know the characters of Sophie's children, so it lacks the incredible emotional punch that such a scene could and should have done.
I'm glad I've finished this book and won't be hurrying out to get another. Be warned, if you come to this novel expecting a moving war story, you'll be disappointed.