You could say many things about Christopher Beha’s What Happened to Sophie Wilder
that would make it sound very conventional, just another piece of program fiction, contemporary lit fic about the creative class in their 20s. It is, after all, a novel about a college romance between two aspiring writers, and its aftermath both for their relationship and for their careers.
You could also make it sound a different kind of conventional: a conversion story. Sophie’s and Charlie’s lives diverge because she converts to Catholicism. To paraphrase a quote that D.G. Myers has used in his rave on the novel, Sophie has turned. She has become a different person from the one who used to stay up all night reading and writing and fucking with Charlie.
Maybe the thing that makes Sophie Wilder seem unconventional is how seriously Beha takes these characters. Again, not in a conventional way—he doesn’t focus much on the quality of their art, except to note carefully that both recognize Sophie’s greater talent, and insofar as Charlie’s inadequacy still haunts him. He doesn’t think much of the hipness of the parties thrown by Charlie’s cousin, roommate, and fellow class member Max. What he does take very seriously is Sophie’s conversion, and what it actually means for everything that comes after.
And once more I feel compelled to say, it’s not what you think; it’s not that he’s saying she’s right (or wrong). It’s that her conversion is utterly real; she experiences what she can best describe as an occupation by the Holy Spirit, and nothing in her life is ever the same again. She is constantly aware of God and faith in ways that Charlie can barely fathom—and at the actual time of her conversion, he doesn’t even entertain the possibility that she actually believes.
Her morality is changed. Deep elements of her character are changed. Her values. Her relationships with herself, her friends, her future. If it seems hard to believe that the Sophie Wilder of Charlie’s Bildung is the same woman who will go on to marry an ultrabland lawyer with a past (and a girlfriend on the side; really he could be a bit character on Law and Order), it’s because she’s not the same woman.
Then again, she is the same woman, which is why Charlie still “knows” her years later (though he also doesn’t, and realizes he never has), and why she still gives him that old feeling, one of my favorite lines in the novel, that “If I could be just one thing now, that would be it: someone going somewhere with Sophie Wilder.”
This will not be the only thing I write about Sophie Wilder. I only gave you one measly quote! This one deserves a real review-review.