Christpher Beha’s novel What Happened to Sophie Wilder is the story of two writers, one who is trying to find his voice and another who’s trying to decide how to use her voice when her whole worldview has changed. The two writers–Charlie and Sophie–met in a writing workshop and had a relationship that has haunted Charlie since the two went their separate ways. Sophie published a story collection to great acclaim but then disappeared into marriage and her newfound Catholicism. Charlie’s novel doesn’t get much attention, and he’s a bit lost. Then, Sophie turns up, estranged from her husband, and Charlie learns her story.
When Jenny reviewed this book last year, I put in on my must-read list immediately, and it’s every bit as extraordinary as she said it was. Beha raises challenging questions about identity, conversion, the nature of love, and the value of life, but he doesn’t force particular answers on the readers. It’s a meaty, meaty book, and we’re left to draw our own conclusions, both about what happened to Sophie Wilder and about what ought to have happened.
Because both Charlie and Sophie are writers, one theme that comes up repeatedly is the idea of storytelling. As a couple, Charlie and Sophie amused one another by making up stories about people they saw on the street. Their stories were, in effect, acts of creation, with the writers acting as gods, dictating people’s fates and even establishing their identities. Sometimes they made stories out of their own lives:
We spoke about our own lives almost exclusively as material, as a rough draft in which one learned what would work on the page. … stories could free us from experience, allowing us to spend days at a time silently near each other without feeling we were missing the world outside. If you could imagine a story into life, then you didn’t need to live it.
It’s easy enough to make this declaration, but life happens to both Sophie and Charlie. Soon, Sophie is caught up in a different story, a story written by God himself, and she makes choices that she thinks fits the kind of story that God would write for her. She gives up writing, but she continues to make stories in her mind about herself, about her husband and his family, and about God. By making up those stories she also makes them real, even if only in her own mind. The narratives she makes up drive her actions, and so those stories might as well be real.
By the end of the novel, readers are left wondering exactly what is real. The two threads–Charlie’s first-person story and Sophie’s third-person story–cannot exist seamlessly. The book is, after all, a story. The question is, who is in charge of that story? Who, indeed, is in charge of life and death? And how does our answer to that question drive the stories we write for ourselves?