Book #96-Sophie’s Choice by William Styron

Through the voice of a young Southern writer living in Brooklyn after being fired from McGraw Hill, we learn how a tormented Polish woman survived Auschwitz and came to a new life in New York.

Styron’s lugubrious tale is set  in a rooming house in Flatbush, Brooklyn, occupied by an odd assortment of tenants, one who it is discovered, came from Poland following liberation from a concentration camp.

The notion of what constitutes true evil is a theme found throughout the story, in one instance  comparing an anti-semitc Poland with a racist South.   There were also several passages set at understanding human behaviors, both those of the coward and the brave.

The narrator, Stingo, a young man from Virginia is hoping to write the next great novel.  His naivete blinds him to the bizarre behaviors of two tenants who befriend him.   Whilst imagining his name in print, he fails to see the masterpiece before him in the form of the new friendship he has forged.  His oversexed libido was a bit overdone, and while understanding this perspective, understatement would have been preferred.  While his gullibility and inexperience made him human, it was his wide eyed enthusiasm that made him likable.

The tortured soul Sophie made my heart ache and break simultaneously.  Having seen the film, I tried to erase Meryl Streep’s image yet failed to do so.  I can now not imagine anyone else in that role.  For those not in the know, I shant spoil the premise here.  Sophie, a Polish holocaust survivor, is in love with fellow tenant, Nathan who subjects her to verbal and physical abuses.  The stories she shares with Stingo continue to change and she admits to a variety of falsehoods yet it is clear that the   lies are not meant to mislead, but are pieces of armor Sophie is just beginning to remove.  A tragic figure in every sense, she tore out my heart while laying bear her own.

Nathan, the maniacal lover of Sophie is quite obviously unstable so it is not any wonder that he is drawn to the innocent Stingo and the damaged young Polish housemate.  Mood swings, verbal tirades, physical attacks and rantings of work related experiments scream of mental illness, but the aftermath of apologies and gifts seem to quell the concerns of his victims.  His self torment is so raw that it is hard not to feel for this tragic, albeit unpredictable man.


She was so chaotically in love with Nathan that it was like dementia, and it is more often than not the person one loves from whom one withholds the most searing truths about one’s self, if only out of the very human motive to spare groundless pain.  

There are rare moments in life when the intensity of a buried emotion one has felt toward another person–a repressed animus or a wild love–comes heaving to the surface of consciousness with immediate clarity; sometimes it is like a bodily cataclysm, ever unforgettable.  

So much of Styron’s early years seemed infused in this book so I’d be sure to ask him about his days at McGraw Hill and subsequent dismissal.  Perhaps we could hike some historic southern trails and discuss his literary influences.  I think I’d steer clear of  his darker days and the subsequent publication of Darkness Visible and try to focus on brighter days.

My rating for Sophie’s Choice  is a 9 out of 10.

To see the entire list, visit Modern Library’s 100 Best Novels.

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Next up, Paul Bowles’ The Sheltering Sky…


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