There’s a blurb on the back of Christopher R. Beha’s debut novel, What Happened to Sophie Wilder, which says it will “renew [readers’] faith in what literature is capable of achieving.” This is pretty close to the opposite of what the book is doing—and what it does well. Sophie Wilder is smart, painful, and insightful; it’s also a book which is deeply ambivalent about the power of the creative imagination and the desire to transform event into narrative. It’s a book about despair, and about the weakness of imagination rather than its power; in fact, one of its most striking and admirable characteristics is how up-front it is about its own failures of imagination.
The spine of the story is the relationship between demi-successful writer Charlie Blakeman and more-successful writer Sophie. At first both of them seem kind of insufferable, especially Charlie, who whines about how he got published and was reviewed in all the right places but nobody read his book. Beha is unsparing in his depiction of Charlie’s flaws. His internal monologue is very “written”; check out the lingering, self-indulgent phrase hanging off the end of the description of Charlie’s mother: “after my father’s death her mute suffering filled the atmosphere of that apartment, of her life.”
And he relies on Sophie to create him. She’s repeatedly paralleled with God: Sophie begins his real life, Sophie has a plan for him.
Sophie herself was “created” intellectually by a previous mentor, and one of the strengths of the book is the way it never tells you that making another human being your creator is cruel and unsustainable—it places far too much responsibility on the other person—but just shows you what that unsustainable mindset looks like.
Or maybe the spine of the story is a different creator-creation relationship: Sophie’s relationship with God. She’s a restless spirit who stumbles across Catholicism, first in books and then in church.
Beha has some really believable depictions of those first experiences of God’s presence; Sophie feels herself “occupied,” taken over by an overwhelming presence much bigger and more real than anything she’s felt or known before. And then she has to live with the consequences.
She marries a Catholic, she retires from the bright-young-things writing scene, she disappears from Charlie’s life. When she returns she has separated from her husband, and Charlie, who has always been aware that he doesn’t understand her faith or her choices, tries to figure out the mystery in the title.
There’s a lot going on here. There’s Sophie’s quest for identity (she has three different surnames throughout the novel), a quest she seems to be trying to escape—she wants to surrender to an identity, sink into it, rather than having to go out and conquer and defend it. She doesn’t want her conversion and subsequent changed life to be about her search for self, but about her encounter with God.
There’s a grim consideration of suffering and how it resists narrative. If you demand that your life have a narrative structure, how can you accept ongoing suffering? There are more novels about getting married than being married, more novels about catastrophe than about perseverance. Sophie is caught between her faith, which requires her to believe that suffering is meaningful—that it does form a long narrative whose resolution lurks just beyond the last page, in the afterlife—and the people and culture around her who insist that it’s meaningless.
Beha hasn’t written a novel of perseverance. That’s not surprising.
What’s surprising is that he knows that such a novel would be harder to write; he knows that writing despair and closure is the easier choice. There’s a scene in which Charlie sees someone who could be Sophie in another life, in another story; he wants to imagine that other woman’s life, but he fails. He can’t. This moment of self-critique is startlingly poignant: There might be a door if I could imagine a door.
Sophie Wilder deftly interweaves realistic and metafictional scenes or moments. It’s a family mystery (what did Sophie’s father-in-law do to make his son cut off contact?), a portrait of angry and lonely suffering in old age, a romance of sorts, and a novel of ideas. It’s an exploration of the making and unmaking of human lives as well as narratives. It’s impressively dissatisfied: aware of its own inadequacies, grasping for something more, trapped in weakness and failure yet maintaining a kind of disclaimered, distanced hope against hope.