Sophie's Choice, by William Styron

Stingo comes to live in New York, and lodges at a house where Nathan and Sophie are living. He becomes strong friends with them, falling helplessly in love with Sophie, even as she is in love with the unpredictably vicious Nathan. And Sophie confides in Nathan, telling him of her history in the war, and her time in Auschwitz, and the choice she had to make.

I knew that much about the story from having seen the film. I remember thinking the film was good, so was looking forward to the book. But it was not an unalloyed pleasure. The main problem was it was so long - about thirty hours on audiobook, which is not far off Middlemarch. But unlike Middlemarch, where I could listen/read forever because the writing is so beautiful, I struggled a bit here - it just felt self-indulgent and in need of editing.

the book is supposedly written by Stingo, who’s looking back on the events decades earlier. It’s pretty hard enough to believe that Stingo can recall in such minute detail what the summer was like for him, but aside from that there are huge long passages where he’s reporting what Sophie told him about her experiences in Auschwitz (and in some cases events many years before that) - stories that are many hours long, full of incidental detail, contain embedded flashbacks, and are full of conversations reported verbatim that Sophie had, or reported other people as having. This just irritated me because it undermined the supposed honesty of the story.

There was a section lasting at least two hours with Stingo talking about the lead up to a date with Lesley, an occasion where he anticipated losing his virginity. I can see this has some relevance to the Sophie story, but TWO HOURS and it wasn't really that interesting. And so when you think the story's moving somewhere and Stingo says something like "at this point it's relevant to include an account of the day when Sophie and Nathan had their first fight" I almost groaned (the diversion took an hour and a half).

I think it might be better if you read the book not knowing what Sophie's Choice actually was - then you'd be reading through, intrigued, waiting to find out. As it was, I knew what the choice was, and so the way that key details are deliberately omitted or that you're misled for so much of the book feels clumsy.

At around CD 20 (of 24, I think) the book started to feel a bit more interesting, where we found out why Nathan behaved as he did (I'd forgotten this detail). But by that time I was really longing for the book to finish.

There were a couple of things I noted as being good: one is when Sophie was on the beach with a load of Nathan's friends who were all talking about how psychoanalysis had led to them being able to sort out their problems. Sophie had to walk away, because she was so cross at them and their "unearned unhappiness". And when she was talking to Stingo about the difficulties of mastering the English language, she asked why you say "it made me cry" and "it caused me TO cry" but not "it made me to cry" or "it caused me cry". At first, I thought, well it's obvious isn't it? But then I realised I couldn't explain why it was.

So I think I'm glad I read it, but I wouldn't read it again.

Completed : 25-Jan-2014 (audiobook)

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