Monday, August 18, 2014

"That which was supposed to happen had happened"

This is a heck of a book. I suspected it might be: I mentioned to a twitter contact that I'd just taken it out from the library and he told me to get in touch when I'd finished it, because he wanted someone to talk about the ending with. And yet -- almost right up until it happened -- I was still surprised at how taken aback I was by the ending. In the best possible way.

Look, we may or may not know each other, and I certainly can't tell you how to spend your time, but I really think you want to read What Happened to Sophie Wilder.

The central characters, Charlie and Sophie, were intense college lovers at their exclusive liberal-arts-college writing program, and in the novel's present, Sophie comes back into Charlie's life under murky circumstances. The novel alternates between the two of them, unfolding the past both directly and indirectly.

This is a book about lives and narratives: the versions of our lives and others' lives that we construct and tell (think of the title as a question at a party: "Whatever happened to..."), and the relationship between those stories and real events, the march of time. What does it mean when it seems like someone else's story should be to fall in love with, or reconcile with, or help me, but they refuse? Can we know another person the way we know a character in a book? What does it take to change our own story; however sincere a conversion, can it really ever change our path? What Happened to Sophie Wilder effortlessly (!) drew me into these deep waters, as Charlie tries to piece together the plot of Sophie's life and find his own place in it. It's effective at conjuring up all these different layers of narrative and reality without getting in the way of the actual experience of reading; it's only when you get to the (puzzling, contradictory) ending, as you review the whole thing in your mind, that all of this comes to the surface. I guess it's a little like those Magic Eye posters (google it, youngsters): the ending knocks your eyes out of whack, so to speak, and then the thing you were looking at all along suddenly transforms into something deep and textured and surprising.

I'm trying not to give away too much (the unfolding is part of the effect), and so I'm falling into freshman lit major mumbo jumbo and possibly making the book sound weird or hard. It's not; it's an engaging novel that you can happily read on the train. Just as a story about young people figuring out what to do with their lives, it caught and held my interest. Plus the writing is notably good.
I miss that about those days---the freedom to want; the belief that our desires could never disappoint us, so long as we remained loyal to them; the sense that we could choose our fate, as though the absence of choice weren't exactly what made it fate.
And if you think, a novel about twenty-something capital-w Writers in New York City, goodie; I had a similar thought and, hilariously, on the next page it agreed with me:
Outside the world of mean-spirited media blogs no one had any idea who we were. Max secretly faulted me for this, though in truth people were simply tired of comfortable young white guys from New York. I couldn't blame them; I was tired of us, too.
So go get What Happened to Sophie Wilder. Better yet, get it and give a copy to a friend and make a pact to get together and talk about the ending when you've finished it.