Christopher Beha’s debut novel is complex, thoughtful, interesting and… something I might describe as tender, though it is not romantic. It is intellectual without posing, and moving without being even the tiniest bit sentimental. Well over a week after I finished it, I’m still thinking about it, wondering about it, weighing it in my heart and mind. Each time I think about it, I like it more.
The novel is told in two strands. The first is narrated in first person, in the voice of Charlie, an aspiring novelist who was in love with Sophie Wilder in college. They meet in a fiction workshop, Sophie’s work much more interesting and sophisticated than Charlie’s, and spend their college years together in an intense and isolated relationship, telling each other stories, back and forth, back and forth. Sophie is far more self-assured and intelligent than most freshman women, but this doesn’t come across as annoying: she really does know herself, and she also knows she will change.
After college, and after the publication of Sophie’s first book of short stories, Sophie marries another man and disappears from view. Why didn’t she follow up with another book? What was her marriage like? Where did she go? What happened to Sophie Wilder — as a woman and as a writer? Charlie doesn’t know.
The second strand of the story is told in third person, about Sophie herself. The book follows her closely through a period of a couple of weeks in which she is caring for her estranged, dying father-in-law. While we watch Sophie go through that bitter relationship, and listen to her consider her history and the end game of her marriage, Charlie’s narration fills in some, but not all, of the gaps.
What fills this book with a strange light, unlike any novel I’ve read recently, is that Sophie is a convert to Catholicism. Beha’s very spare and simple prose disallows the possibility that she is egging herself on, or inventing her faith the way she has invented her stories up to this point. The description of her conversion, almost exactly halfway through the book, is so bare as to be almost trying to free itself of language:
It is in the nature of what happened next that it can’t be conveyed in words. The few times Sophie tried to explain it later, even to herself, she fell back on cliché: something came over her; she walked out changed. It got closer to it to say that she was, for a time, occupied. … But mostly she knew that it was something outside of herself, not an idea or a conceit or a metaphor.
After this experience, Sophie is full of a new life, but this life somehow does not include the ability to tell stories any longer. She is a new person, she thinks, and it was the old Sophie who wrote that way. And we see it: Beha allows us to see that there has in fact been a fundamental shift in Sophie, of all her values and interests. Instead, she finds a job writing grants for non-profit organizations. The implications of faith, fiction and reality, creation and redemption and sacrifice, are delicately placed in this book. You’re never browbeaten with them, but they are there, deeply important and deeply literary.
But when Sophie unexpectedly meets her estranged father-in-law and takes on the job of caring for him in his final days, her urge to write returns. And this is where the really big questions come into play. Faith is real — we’ve established that — but authors write about it all the time. (Beha evokes Eliot, Greene, Waugh, and many others.) So can story and poetry enhance faith without making it fictive, or is that a delusion? Can we write our own redemptive stories? Can we re-write the endings of other people’s stories, to suit ourselves, or even to suit God?
The ending of the novel is ambiguous: a strange, profoundly satisfying blend of hope and sorrow. The two strands of narration don’t fill in all the gaps of time, and the reader must guess at some of what happened to Sophie Wilder. When I got to the end, I wanted to re-read the entire novel in the light of what I’d just discovered: Charlie’s ending is quite different from Sophie’s, though he gropes toward understanding. But the way we get to this winding ending is beautifully done. Rarely do I read a novel that is willing to think about these kinds of questions without blinking; rarely is it done so delicately. Read this novel. And when you’re done, let me know: I’m dying to talk about it with someone.