What Happened to Sophie Wilder: A Novel
By Chris Beha
Source: One-Minute Book Reviews
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A young convert to Catholicism faces a test of her faith when she cares for a dying man in the first novel by Chris Beha, an associate editor of Harper’s. Sophie Wilder fell in love with Charlie Blakeman in college and drops back into his life when they are both in their 20s and have had books published. Sophie has re-entered Charlie’s life, it seems, to tell him about her recent, troubling experience of caring for a dying man. What Happened to Sophie Wilder is Charlie’s attempt to make sense of Sophie’s life from his perspective as a New Yorker who has abandoned traditional religious practices. Told from two alternating viewpoints, the novel raises such questions as: Why do we need stories, whether religious or literary? And at what point does an investment in a “story” become irreversible?
10 Discussion Questions for What Happened to Sophie Wilder:
1. A lively debate has occurred online about whether Sophie’s conversion to Catholicism was convincing. How plausible did it seem to you?
2. The publisher of this novel says that it is about “the redemptive power of storytelling.” Do you agree? If so, why? If not, what is the novel “about”?
3. The novel tells Sophie’s story from two alternating points of view. The odd-numbered chapters give Charlie’s first-person point of view. The even-numbered chapters use third-person narration. Who is telling the story in even-numbered chapters? Some critics believe they represent Charlie’s attempt to tell the story from Sophie’s perspective. Do you agree?
4. The phrase “What happened to?” has more than one meaning. It can signify curiosity (whatever became of?) or alarm (what went wrong?). In this novel, the phrase has a third, metafictional meaning: What happens to Sophie Wilder at the end of the novel What Happened to Sophie Wilder? What do you think happens to her at the end?
5. Did you find the ending of the book — really, two endings — satisfying? Why?
6. A critic for Publishers Weekly said it’s hard to sympathize with Sophie even when she’s trying to do the right thing, “because she’s so blatantly indifferent to the harm she causes.” What, if anything, did you admire about Sophie?
7. Chris Beha dealt indirectly with a meaning of the title of the novel in the online magazine the Nervous Breakdown. He wrote: “What Charlie does discover about what happened to Sophie has nothing to do with the success of her first book or her failure to write another. Instead, it has to do with the time she spent caring for her husband’s dying father, and the way the watching him suffer has changed her. That is, it has to do with the world’s hard realities.” Did the novel convince you that Sophie’s fate had more do with Bill Crane than with Charlie or with her writing career?
8. This novel has conspicuous literary symbols, such as the Victorian glass aquarium in the Greenwich Village townhouse in which Charlie and his cousin Max rent rooms. What does the fish tank represent? Who or what are the tropical fish? You might interpret the tank in either a secular sense (it’s an expensive object from earlier era) or in a sacred one (in some contexts, fish symbolize Christianity).
9. “We had been given something beautiful, asked only to watch over it,” Charlie says at the end of the novel. “We’d been careless, and now it was all in ruin.” He’s talking about the aquarium he and Max were supposed to tend, but his words may have more than one meaning. What you think he’s saying in these lines?
10. What Happened to Sophie Wilder has drawn raves from some critics, such as David G. Myers of Commentary, who said that it is “a remarkable first novel” that “should especially be read by those who have given up on contemporary literature.” The book has had mixed reviews from others, including Sarah Towers, who wrote in the New York Times Book Review: “In places the novel suffers from too much distancing exposition — the price of so many flashbacks to Charlie and Sophie’s college days. And yet, like Charlie, I found myself absorbed throughout with the mystery of Sophie.” How would you sum up the novel?
These questions relate to the religious ideas in What Happened to Sophie Wilder:
1. Sophie begins to read her dying father-in-law the story of how Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead, found in the Bible in John 11:1-44. (“Now Jesus loved Martha …) He cuts her off. Why did Sophie choose that passage? Why did Bill reject it?
2. The Bible says that Christians will receive the gifts listed in Galatians 5:22: “the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering [i.e., patience], gentleness, goodness, faith.” Which, if any, of those traits does Sophie show? Does it matter, in a literary sense, whether or not she shows any?
3. Sophie converted to Catholicism after reading the monk Thomas Merton’s spiritual autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain, and each of the two main sections of the novel has seven chapters. (The title of Merton’s book refers to the mountain of purgatory in Dante’s Divine Comedy.) Does the division of the novel into seven-chapter sections have meaning? If so, what is it? In what ways is Sophie in her own purgatory?
What Happened to Sophie Wilder. By Christopher R. Beha. Tin House, 256 pp., $15.95. Published: May 2012. A review of the novel appeared on One-Minute Book Reviews on Oct. 14, 2012.
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© 2012 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.