Ugh, what a tedious book. I read this because a) it's supposedly a classic and b) it's on the ALA's banned books list, which means it qualifies for one of my reading challenge categories. Again, I can see why it was banned: because it involves tons of talk of sex, and the people who like to ban books are terrified of sex. Also it was apparently banned in Poland because it highlights how anti-Semitic that country was?
Anyway. The main story here is about struggling writer Stingo, who ends up living in a boarding house where the titular Sophie and her lover, Nathan, also live. While Stingo tries to write a great Southern novel, he gets tangled up in Sophie and Nathan's disastrous love affair and learns about Sophie's past in Poland during World War II, including her time in Auschwitz.
Stingo is pretty clearly Styron; not a literal version of Styron, but he wants to write about all the same things Styron writes about and Styron uses him to shove his own philosophy about slavery and concentration camps and whatever down our throats. This is especially easy for him because Stingo is the narrator. I basically hated Stingo. He was so boring and pretentious and all he ever thought about was getting laid. I didn't care about him at all and the best parts of the book were when he was "narrating" Sophie's story, because those parts actually read as normal third-person narration for the most part rather than Stingo's pretentious rambling.
Sophie is someone that everyone falls in love with right away because she's hawt. No other reason. This is sad, because I think there were other reasons to love Sophie--but none of the characters actually like her because of them. Her personal story is deep and moving, and is the story of a non-Jewish inmate of Auschwitz. She apparently knows how to love unconditionally, given her feelings for Nathan despite his abysmal treatment of her, though some of this is probably her clinging to something that seems stable (even if it's not) after the previous turmoil of her life. The thing I didn't like about Sophie is that she is an unreliable narrator. She's told everyone different versions of her story with different details revealed. Stingo purports to have the true version, but how can we really know? All of these lies and contradictory revelations that Sophie puts out kind of made me doubt her larger story as a whole, which really isn't something that I think was supposed to happen.
Other problematic things about this include how Nathan's mental illness is portrayed. He's very clearly unstable from the beginning of the book, but I don't know...something about how Styron tied his (unknown to everyone else until late in the book) diagnosis into his behaviors and used it to just excuse away his behavior seems...not good. I mean, people with mental illnesses are not dangerous as a rule, and Nathan very clearly was from the very start.
Overall, though, the book just dragged. I like the parts with Sophie's story, but I knew the ending of that before I started, and so it didn't come as a big, heart-wrenching, shocking moment for me. Stingo I absolutely hated. (Did I mention he sexually assaults someone? They're making out and once he realizes she doesn't want to have sex, he decides to just whip it out and try to get a handjob out of her, even though it's been made pretty clear from her reactions that she's not into it.) The non-Sophie parts dragged, and I didn't want to read about Styron's philosophy at all. This was tedious all over, and I'm glad to have it over with.
2 stars out of 5.