Charlie Blakeman has always compared his life with ex Sophie’s. She “became a touchstone against which I measured the passing time,” Charlie narrates, “my relationships, my writing, and found it all wanting. This wasn’t just nostalgia – though I might have idealized what we’d had, I didn’t want to recover the past. It was the incompleteness of it that haunted me. The story wasn’t finished.” Sophie, like Charlie, is a writer, one Charlie fancies is better than himself. While Charlie’s first published novel attracted minor attention, Sophie’s debut collection of short stories garnered her national acclaim. As this novel begins—and then proceeds back through two distinct narratives, Charlie’s present and “what happened” to Sophie in the past—both are attempting their follow up novels. For different reasons, neither is having much luck.
But What Happened to Sophie Wilder is much better than that summary makes it sound. Current fiction all too often concerns the lives of writers—perhaps a byproduct of a navel-gazing trend in MFA programs—but Christopher Beha, an associate editor at Harper’s and here publishing his own first novel, makes it work. His success with what usually is a dull topic is testament to the way the story skillfully navigates anything resembling a navel. The prose isn’t flashy, but what makes this story so intriguing is Beha’s effortless layering of the past and present, and the compelling march forward of both the Charlie (narrating in the first person) sections and the Sophie (narrating in the third person) sections. Charlie and Sophie grew close during time at a small liberal arts college; Sophie first wowed Charlie with a gothic novella. An intense relationship followed, and for a number of reasons, none of which I will spoil here, the intensity faded. Charlie moved away and Sophie got married. But one afternoon, Charlie discovers Sophie at one of his flatmate’s perennial parties.
Sophie, it turns out, was seeking Charlie, who is living in New York with his cousin Max, a bohemian film reviewer, in a bit of a stasis:
We wanted badly to believe it was still possible to live off ideas, except when we wanted badly to believe that it was no longer possible, since then the failure to do so was not our own, not caused by a lack of discipline or talent or by the fact that we didn’t finally want the things we wanted as much as we thought we wanted them.
Sophie is stuck too: she has separated from her husband, and has undergone a variety of experiences that have brought her back to Charlie. Whether and how it’s even possible for them to possess any semblance of the relationship they once had— given what has happened to Sophie and to Charlie—makes up the primary drama of the book.
Perhaps the oddest—or at least most unexpected turn this novel takes—is its serious approach to Catholicism, which has rightly drawn comparisons to Graham Greene’s. (What other major semi-recent writer took Catholicism so seriously? Besides Flannery O’Conner.) Sophie converts to Catholicism but quickly finds her faith challenged. That may turn off some readers, but for this one it only seemed to make an counterpoint to some of the novel’s themes: commitment, promise, and ideas, among other things.
The final twist, if it can be called that, is obviously reminiscent of Atonement—and, I am happy to say, it was as brilliant as McEwan’s final pages stunner. To say more (and I’ve probably said too much already) would be to spoil is primary purpose, which is that of making the story satisfyingly unfinshed.
What Happened to Sophie Wilder is the best novel published this year I’ve yet read, and the best overall first novel I’ve read in some time. It is worth reading, worth re-reading, and worth considering as a touchstone itself.