I don’t know about this one.
I was engaged throughout the novel What Happened to Sophie Wilder, but skeptical, too–a fitting state for a novel that is so much about faith, I guess. Structurally, the book alternates between Charlie’s first person chapters, happening in the present but largely recounting the past, and Sophie’s third person chapters, more immediate in action vs. exposition terms, but issuing from the recent past. The two were in a deep yet tenuous relationship in college until they had a falling out, Sophie underwent a religious conversion and married a less-than-appropriate Catholic classmate post-grad. Both Sophie and Charlie were writers and talked about writing and literature more than anyone outside of a book ever would. In her very early twenties, Sophie published a collection to wild critical acclaim; in his late twenties Charlie published a largely ignored semi-autobiographical novel that even he knows is mediocre. When Sophie comes back into Charlie’s life soon after the failure of his novel, this novel commences.
It is strange to say that I found Sophie to be idealized in this book, when she is in fact so flawed. Her plight was well-reasoned and her decisions, feelings and actions grew out of understandable motivations. Perhaps it was the undying affections of Charlie, and so many other men, that were idealized. She was able to wound Charlie’s pride, but he never actually was deterred from loving her by her behavior. She was so perfect to him that she flattened out for me.
Another thing that seemed unrealistic was the New York setting. I know that my literary existence is firmly grounded in the outer-boroughs, so that’s my bias, but what is up with a young, literary crew having daily parties near Washington Square? If they were NYU students, that would have been one thing, but they weren’t. I understand that Charlie and his cousin, Max, were not really paying for the home in which they stayed on Washington Square, but they had friends living in lofts in Soho or Tribecca, they had people wandering in and out as if they were in the habit of hanging out in the neighborhood. I rationalized this by expecting that the book was set in the nineties–I didn’t find much to refute that and, in fact, the Lower East Side/East Village was portrayed as still in the process of gentrifying–until at some point 9/11 was referenced, and then the blackout of 2003. It seemed off to me, but who knows–maybe there was a whole literary world taking place in Manhattan ten years ago while I was tooling around Williamsburg.
Early on, I got the idea that there was something of a meta-narrative going on in What Happened to Sophie Wilder. And then when I got to the end, I felt pretty sure (I’d like to tell you how, but I don’t want to ruin it). What Happened to Sophie Wilder was Charlie’s story in more ways than one.–he was both in it and outside of it–I think it was his second novel. Clever, yes. Compelling? To me, not really. The mysteries that comprised the suspense of the novel never affected me because I had the sense that they were there only to illustrate qualities in Sophie’s character, to challenge her new-found faith. I almost felt that the book was too well thought-out, that in being so idea-driven it failed to connect.
Paging through reviews of the book, it seems that almost no one felt the way I did, which makes me happy–I never feel good about not liking what others, especially those nebulously in my peer group, have worked so hard to write, especially when we’re talking about a first novel. It’s important for me to take apart the books I read to figure out why I feel the way I do about them, but I don’t want to hurt feelings–I think when the New York Times was into your book, I don’t have to worry about that.