What Happened to Sophie Wilder by Christopher Beha

When I last wrote about What Happened to Sophie Wilder, I talked about how, despite some superficial trappings, it wasn’t a very conventional contemporary novel. That is to say, though it seemed like several things about the book should had gotten on my nerves, they didn’t at all.

Sophie herself is another example of this. In a badly written novel, she would be insufferable. She goes to college as a more fully-formed human being than I am in my late twenties, uncannily certain about who she is. And she is absurdly badass (under, of course, a very specific definition of badass). Clearly and coolly the best writer in their seminar, Sophie unofficially adopts the narrator of half of the novel, Charlie, who ends up with quite the reading list as the two discuss their taste in literature. When asked if she likes Nabokov, specifically Lolita, Sophie replies, “Sure…But I like Pale Fire better. And Ada. Some of the early Russian ones, too, like The Defense.” Men want her, and women want to be her!* (Again, under very specific definitions of “men” and “women.”)

So why is this girl, this child, allowed to be so brilliant without being offensive? Because she really is what she seems to be. She does know herself, is sure of herself—and it is uncanny. It makes her ethereal, not quite of this world. When they meet again later, Charlie recalls “the feeling I used to have watching Sophie from a distance on campus, when it seemed a travesty for her to be out in the world, interacting like a normal human being.” She’s not just a full-of-herself teenager—she is that too, but she’s also a bona fide, pretty low-key genius. (Ah, but why is that the case? That’s a whole other post!)

But if you feel jealous at all of Sophie, so grown-up at eighteen, book of short stories published straight out of college, remember that something happened to her. Before most of the events of the novel, she was orphaned, and just barely at the age of consent has a long-term affair with a much-older woman, who owns a bookstore. In Charlie’s mind, at least, this explains quite a bit about Sophie. But that’s not what I meant about what “happened”; the Sophie that goes off to college and meets Charlie is not the same Sophie who turns up again a decade later. This is the new Sophie, the Catholic Sophie—the Sophie who has “turned.”

One of the more interesting things about this Sophie is that, based on the half of the novel not narrated by Charlie but by a third person focused closely on Sophie, she clearly recognizes that she is in a new and different phase of her life now; she feels herself to be a different person. And she articulates, via the “I do not hope to turn again” T.S. Eliot reference, that this is not necessarily the last time she will change in this way. She doesn’t want to change again, but she knows she might—again, very wise of her—and this wisdom brings fear.

I would like to write more about Sophie’s conversion, though I’m not sure that I will. More likely is that “whole other post” I mentioned above—one that would address a subject very important to the novel that I have hardly mentioned at all, namely, fiction itself. Thanks so much to everyone who commented on the last post insisting it was at least as good as a “real review”; I hope you will continue to enjoy my less structured writing on the novel.

*Full disclosure: I had read all but The Defense when I was her age, too.

This is not a review: on What Happened to Sophie Wilder

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.