What Happened to Sophie Wilder? review

I am not Catholic and I never have been and I never will be. There isn’t much of Catholic doctrine that I find even remotely plausible and I find a great deal of it, at least when practiced strictly, repressive, disempowering and discriminatory (I mean this about the church as a whole, not individual Catholics).
That said, though, there is something that I have always found incredibly fascinating and even alluring about the pageantry of the church, the ritual of it all. I don’t understand that particular faith–which is fine, I don’t have to–but I do understand the appeal of the trappings of that tradition.
This is a long way of saying that when the titular character of Beha’s What Happened to Sophie Wilder (http://www.politics-prose.com/book/%5Bmodel%5D-165), which I read in one long gulp on a spring evening, converts to Catholicism I found myself receptive. I also found myself puzzled and dismissive; it makes no sense to me to that, for example, premarital sex is a sin. But I was fascinated anyway by how Sophie found herself, suddenly and without warning, a strict Catholic, how she felt herself taken over by something she could not quite explain or name.
I suppose I should back up a little. The book is told in alternating viewpoints: first person from Charlie, who meets Sophie in a writing seminar in college, and third person, for Sophie’s chapters. Sophie is smart as all hell, an excellent writer–or at least we are led to believe this–and a dream girl for a certain kind of literary college boy. The novel traces the writing careers of both, Sophie’s marriage, the way she cared for her dying father-in-law, and Charlie’s squalid little life, rooming with his cousin Max.
Sophie’s conversion is a key component of the novel, and without it, obviously nothing else would have worked. I am a little surprised by myself and my adoration of this plotline; despite being a hardcore Unitarian Universalist I am, well, and UU, and therefore, like many hyper-liberals, sometimes dismissive of more orthodox faiths. This is not fair–though neither, of course, is the consistent subordination of women, or the covering up of child rape. But it is how I often react to strict religious beliefs and so even as I found myself frustrated with Sophie’s new beliefs I found that they also produced an interesting thought experiment: what else could she do? I find what Sophie had come to believe utterly unbelievable; there is nothing in it that I can give credence too. And yet, if Sophie had come to believe this, honestly and truly, well…
At any rate. My entire life I have made up stories, reframed things in my head, inserted myself into my favorite books, created narratives to make sense out of chaos. Sophie and Charlie do the same thing, focusing on what might make a good story, making up tales about the people on the street. I think this is something that a certain kind of person just does, out of necessity; we have to make sense of the world, and we do so through stories. Those of us who drink up books as if they are oxygen are probably especially prone to this sort of meaning-making.
The end of the book–I wish I could give it away–offers up even more questions about this sort of story-telling. Essentially, upon reaching the last page, the readers basically wonders what the hell just happened. This is not a situation that I usually like; sometimes I even think it is lazy writing. In this case, though, I found myself more fascinated than frustrated, because the ending itself focuses us in on the important question: who, exactly, is writing your story? Who gets to decide the ending?


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