“Sophie’s Choice” by William Styron was yet another Wall Street Journal Book Club pick in 2014. It did take me quite a bit to get through it although it was well written. I just found it difficult to spend so much time on such a dark subject. It isn’t a book that I would have picked up on my own, but I think it challenged me as a reader and really made me think about different aspects of WWII.
Even if you haven’t read the book or seen the movie, chances are that you know the gist of what “Sophie’s Choice” is about. Before starting to read the book, I suspected that it would be disturbing and upsetting. I have yet to come across a book written around WWII that wasn’t both of those things. William Styron did not disappoint with his novel. What I found to be truly interesting about this book is it showed the war in flashbacks and through the perspective of Stingo – the narrator. He told the tale that Sophie told him and it made for an interesting read.
Upon beginning the book I was impressed with William Styron’s writing. He drew me in with his effusive stream of words. I found Stingo to be an intriguing narrator and it was definitely fitting to have him be a struggling writer. The words that flowed across the page were reminiscent of a creative soul trying to break through. I enjoyed reading about his struggles with writing. “How simultaneously enfeebling and insulting is an empty page! Devoid of inspiration, I found that nothing would come, and although I sat there for half an hour while my mind fiddled with half-jelled ideas and nebulous conceits, I refused to let myself panic at my stagnation; after all, I reasoned, I had barely settled into these strange surroundings.” (Sophie’s Choice, pg 37).
I think that William Styron did a good job at developing characters. Stingo was the first we meet as he is the one telling the story. Then there are two other main characters – Sophie and Nathan. From the beginning, it is clear that Nathan is not exactly an upstanding guy. He physically, emotionally, and verbally abuses Sophie on a semi-regular basis. The mood swings that he goes through are astounding. I began to really hate Nathan as I read “Sophie’s Choice” while at the same time I just did not understand Sophie and how she could not only put up with him but constantly find a way to forgive and excuse his behavior.
I believe that this quote helps to shed some light on not only how Sophie and Nathan’s relationship affected each other but how it affected Stingo too. “Yet beneath my grand mood I was able to sense that there was something wrong. The terrible scene between Sophie and Nathan the night before should have been warning enough to me that our chummy little get-together, with its laughter and its ease and its gentle intimacy, was scarcely true of the status quo as it existed between them. But I am a person who is too often weakly misguided by the external masquerade, quick to trust in such notions as that the ghastly blow-up I had witnessed was a lamentable but rare aberration in a lovers’ connection whose prevailing tone was really hearts and flowers. I suppose the fact of the matter is that deep down I so hungered for friendship – was so infatuated with Sophie, and attracted with such perverse fascination to this dynamic, vaguely outlandish, wickedly compelling young man who was her inamorato – that I dared not regard their relationship in anything but the rosiest light. Even so, as I say, I could feel something distinctly out of joint. Beneath all the jollity, the tenderness, the solicitude, I sense a disturbing tension in the room.” (Sophie’s Choice, pg 73). It is like this for all interactions with Sophie and Nathan that Stingo witnesses. There is something fundamentally wrong with their relationship.
It is really a combination of the two individuals, both with baggage and both with emotional problems that combine together to form a highly dysfunctional relationship. I think Styron puts it well in this quote. “And I also began gradually to understand how the turmoil that was grinding them to pieces had double origins, deriving perhaps equally from the black and tormented underside of Nathan’s nature and from the unrelinquished reality of Sophie’s immediate past, trailing its horrible smoke – as if from the very chimneys of Auschwitz – of anguish, confusion, self-deception and, above all, guilt…” (Sophie’s Choice, pg 203).
Would I recommend this book? Yes and no. It was certainly well written and a good read, but at the same time it was a lot to take in. It is not a happy book by and standard and although I enjoyed the different insight into WWII and the aftereffects of the war on individuals, I don’t know if I would really push the book on anyone else. It was a good read, but it was a lot to get through. William Styron is a great writer and I would probably pick up more of his work, but I definitely felt the need to read something light and happy after reading “Sophie’s Choice”.