Saturday, January 30, 2016

Sofie's Choice by William Styron

This is a book steeped in contradictions.  The main character, Sophie, is the epitome of this. She is very tragic and yet beautiful, a liar that is honest in her lies, she is utterly depressed and then manically happy, she is a survivor but also a victim.  I read the book before I saw the movie so I already had a notion of what Sophie looked like before she was there on the screen. 

The narrator in this movie is William Styron's alter ego - based loosely on himself - a Southerner from tidewater Virginia - that I now affectionately remember by his nickname - Stingo.  After quitting his job at a publishing house, Stingo, an aspiring writer, rents a room in Brooklyn which he refers to as the Pink Palace and meets Nathan Landau. Nathan is a compelling but very deeply disturbed Jewish intellectual who works at Pfizer and who has singlehandedly nursed a Polish WWII victim, Sophie Zawistowska, back to health. At the time that Stingo meets them, the pair have become lovers. Stingo is drawn to his new friends but, the longer that he spends with them, the longer he realizes that there is a very, very dense fog surrounding them - he witnesses physical violence and emotional abuse in their relationship. As the novel progresses, Sophie describes her life before and during WWII to Stingo. Sophie was a Polish Catholic, married with two children and yet she was seemingly persecuted by the Nazis with the same vitriol as the Jews that the Nazis strove to exterminate. Somehow, Sophie survived being sent to Auschwitz, in the sense that she didn't die, but she was forced to make a terrible, unimaginable choice.

The book started off slowly, I won't lie. But once Stingo met Sophie and Nathan, I was absolutely hooked. What was fascinating to me was that Styron took on a number of intense themes that are still relevant today: domestic violence, the extermination of one group of people by another, mental health and its treatment (or lack of it), and oppression in America. He even attempts to draw a parallel between the oppression of African Americans in the South with those of the oppressed groups during World War II.  And yet, even with these intense themes, Styron did not sacrifice the story or plot. It is a story that draws you and keeps you interested through the entire 515 pages.  I simply could not look away from the words on the page, even though I had some idea of what was going to happen.  Styron's characters were also three dimensional. I found myself able to sympathize with Sophie as well as put myself in her shoes, even at the worst of times.  

William Styron did a wonderful job in telling a horrendously hideous story in a sensitive and bearable way. He layered the story - it didn't go in chronological order - which was a masterful way of building the tension until the ultimate moment of choice. I found myself able to digest and really think about her story and the tragedy that she experienced in a way that I perhaps couldn't if it had been done chronologically. Definitely a must read.  

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