Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Book Review: Sophie's Choice by William Styron

Sophie's ChoiceSophie's Choice by William Styron
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I finished this book a while ago, but I couldn’t decide what to think of it, so I held off on writing a review. But it really deserves a review, so I’m making myself sit down to write one before I forget what I wanted to say about it. I really wanted to love this book, and I did…until about ¾ of the way through. I wish I’d hated the whole book, because that would have been better than taking an amazingly written, moving story and ruining it with a pathetic, self-indulgent ending.

First, about the writing. Styron’s writing is so luscious and delicious that sometimes I had to stop myself from actually licking the page. It was so rich and full of beautiful words and phrases that made me almost drunk with the prose. But, in the end, all that delicious richness left me with a stomach ache. It seemed like Styron fell in love with his own story and his own voice and it killed the book. Literary vomit was the end result.

I’d heard of this book and the movie a few times, but I didn’t even know what it was about before I picked it up. I knew it was supposed to be devastating and heartbreaking. What surprised me was how funny the book was. Told through the eyes of Stingo, a chronically horny twenty-two-year-old in the late forties, the humor in the book kept it from growing too dark. The protagonist’s sexual frustration and foiled attempts at getting laid made me laugh out loud. Throughout most of the book, I loved the story almost as much as the writing. There were several fifty or hundred page chapters I could have done without—long asides that did nothing to advance the plot and instead distracted from the narrative. I would have liked to hear more of Sophie’s story and less of Stingo’s.

The first part of the book was so dull I almost skipped it. I found some of it offensive or in poor taste, but I kept reading. Once Stingo meets Nathan and Sophie, the story gets better.

Nathan was brilliantly created and captivating, the best character in the book by far. Until…he has schizophrenia AND a coke addiction? It just didn’t ring true. I thought the story would have been stronger if he was just evil. Or schizophrenic, but with the good job he said he had. Once I found out that he had lied and was basically an invalid, the book just went downhill from there. It seemed inconsistent with the story, and it rang false to me. He was the best character, complex and full of rage and guilt and issues, and then Styron ruined it all by making him just some crazy guy who made up stories. I wanted his brilliance to be real, not a drug-fueled delusion.

Sophie’s character was developed well, as was Nathan’s. But again, towards the end of the book, it all started to seem hackneyed and false. Over three months she goes from beautiful, refined, and poised to this brazen lush who describes in detail how much she loves sucking cock? I doubt it. Even when she was drunk, she wasn’t the kind of person who would do that. I didn’t believe it. She was developed in a certain way, and then Styron wrote her doing all these things that her character would not have done or said.

Stingo: Although I felt for the guy and his obsession with unrequited love for Sophie, I started to lose sympathy for him at about the same time that the whole book fell apart for me. I understood that he was sexually frustrated, but it seemed like Styron kept building and building on that when he could have been focusing on something more interesting, like Sophie’s time in Auschwitz. And after a while, Stingo just seemed like a nasty pervert, so I lost sympathy. I really didn’t need to hear all about his wet dreams and such. And he was very rude to all the women in the book, which did not endear him to me. Then he takes advantage of drunken, heartbroken Sophie in a cheap hotel somewhere. Really turned me off.

From close to the beginning, I knew Stingo would probably hook up with Sophie, and I knew when he did, it would ruin the book for me. And it did. If not for that, this would have been one of the best books I’ve ever read. Now it’s a 3. It was just not believable that this beautiful, sexually insatiable thirty-year-old woman would have sex with a young guy who is only a friend and say he was a great lover. He was basically a virgin, and yet he claims his very first time he rocked her world even though she was quite experienced. Yeah, right. It felt like Styron fell in love with his own character and wanted to give him everything he ever wanted instead of telling the ‘truth’ of the story—what would have happened to those characters in that world. He based Sophie on someone he met but didn’t know—obviously someone he wanted to fuck. So he let Stingo do it for him. I just didn’t believe a virgin could rock Sophie’s world after she’d been with Nathan, her great love and lover. No way.

This book had a great story to tell, but unfortunately, it was mixed into a story that I had no desire to read. The whole book is this relentless trek towards Sophie’s choice and her demise. And then it’s all cheapened by this detailed sex scene where Stingo gets all he ever wanted and fucks her brains out. Really? Ugh. I read somewhere that Styron was accused of eroticizing the holocaust. Um, hello, because he DID. He also eroticized everything else. The book was beautiful and I devoured the sexually charged writing, but the plot lost all the momentum in the end. For me, it would have been much better if it had focused on the choice and the consequence without the completely unbelievable sex scene, which replaced the much more poignant climax of the choice. Completely ruined the book and detracted from the impact of the choice, which was what the book was supposed to be. It was called Sophie’s Choice. Not Stingo’s Fantastic Fuck.

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