Historical Fiction

Sophie's Choice

Author: William Styron

Published By:
Open Road Iconic Ebooks

Reviewed by Melissa Minners


             Over a decade ago, I caught the last half of a television airing of a dramatic film starring Meryl Streep, Kevin Kline and Peter MacNicol called Sophie's Choice.  The ending of this film was so dramatic and emotional that it left a lasting impression on me.  Years later, when I discovered that the movie was actually based on a novel of the same name by William Styron, I realized I had to get my hands on a copy and recently purchased a downloadable version.

Sophie's Choice is written in the first person point of view, designed to sound like a memoir of sorts written by a young southern man living in New York City in the summer of 1947.  Affectionately called by the nickname of Stingo, the narrator tells the story of his firing from his reader's job at McGraw-Hill Publishing.  Just when he thinks he might have to move back home, Stingo comes into an inheritance, allowing him to move into a boarding house in Brooklyn where he will set to work on writing his first novel.

It is at this boarding house that Stingo meets an eccentric couple that will become his closest friends, for better or for worse.  Sophie Zawistowska is a beautiful Polish woman who survived a Nazi concentration camp and her Jewish lover Nathan Landau is an intelligent, charismatic, yet often troubled and volatile man.  The first meeting between this couple and Stingo is quite abrasive, but eventually, the three hit it off and become quite inseparable.

As the story moves forward, we realize that Sophie is involved in an abusive relationship.  As we begin to learn more about Sophie, we discover that she has been keeping quite a few secrets, one in particular that has caused her such great pain and guilt over the years that she has reason to believe she doesn't deserve happiness.  It is the revelation of that secret that had me glued to the television set all those years ago and inspired me to purchase this novel.

While I did enjoy most of Sophie's Choice, I found that it took me way too long to read it.  Not that the book is overly long, but I was put off by the excessive expounding on Stingo's love life...or lack thereof...and his obsession with sex.  Now, I understand that the character of Stingo is infatuated with Sophie and so his sexual fantasies do have some pertinence here, but I think that Styron overdoes it here. 

In fact, it's not just Stingo's fascination with sex that makes the book drag - it's that every other character in the novel is much more interesting than the narrator.  I became bored every time Stingo told a story about his publishing company career or his love life or the like, but whenever someone else was discussed, I was completely attentive.  Sophie's story, Nathan's story...hell, even the story about Stingo's grandfather's slave, the money from whose sale half a century ago is what serves as Stingo's inheritance is actually more interesting than that of Stingo himself.

There are some interesting parallels drawn in this novel between the atrocities of slavery and the atrocities of the Nazis.  There are a lot of historical facts in this book and one can tell that the author did his homework on the research involved in creating this novel.  Of course, there were times when I felt as if the author was showing off a bit of his knowledge here and there.  For instance, there are a lot of languages used in this book, some readily translated from French, Polish or German, others left to the reader's imagination as to what was meant by the foreign statement. 

I liked how the author explained the feelings of guilt concentration camp survivors often felt afterwards, but I loved how he also showed readers the guilt felt by those who discover that someone they know is a camp survivor.  The most poignant example of this is when Stingo thinks back on his past in an effort to remember just what might have been happening in his life when Sophie was undergoing the atrocities suffered at Auschwitz.  This feeling of guilt expressed by an unscathed someone when confronted by someone who has survived a terribly traumatic ordeal is normal, but not often discussed. 

I loved the way the revelations about Sophie's life in Poland were slowly drawn out with little deceptions here and there to throw the reader off track until the ultimate truth is revealed, a truth so shocking that its revelation still had an effect on me even though I was already expecting it.  I also enjoyed the way Nathan's deception was revealed to the reader.  We all knew that the man was obviously high-strung and always on the edge of a volatile outburst, but the reasons behind these outbursts and the truth about his life come as a complete surprise (I missed that part of the movie). 

As a whole, Sophie's Choice is an excellent novel about the human psyche and how devastating choices that we make can be to us down the road.  It's also a great book for history buffs like myself as it touches upon American slavery, the Civil War and post-war South, Poland and the moments leading up to World War II, the Warsaw Ghetto, the concentration camps and some of the key players of those camps, New York City in the 40s and more.  If you can get through the tedium of Stingo's "diversions" from the tale...and believe me, with some determination, you can...Sophie's Choice is one of those dramatic novels you won't want to put down until the very last page, the last few chapters inspiring mouth-dropping awe at all the surprising revelations. 


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