Sophie’s Choice by William Styron

Sophie's Choice Novel Cover

Set in New York City in the summer of 1947 – just two years after the end of the Second World War – Sophie’s Choice tells the story of Stingo (an aspiring writer from the South who is renting a room in Brooklyn and is trying to pen his first literary masterpiece) and his friendship with a beautiful young woman who lives in the same building: Sophie. A Polish survivor of Auschwitz, Sophie has recently migrated to the US from a refugee centre in Sweden and as the story unfolds, snippet by snippet, we learn of the trauma she has suffered and the terrible secrets she keeps buried deep inside.

Sophie’s Choice is undoubtedly a masterpiece of modern American literature. The way the author, William Styron, has woven together the various strands of the story is impressive. Slowly, with each passing chapter, as if peeling back the layers of an onion, we learn more and more about the enigma that is Sophie and the harrowing ordeals she underwent in war-ravaged Poland.  Styron has so seamlessly joined fact with what I presume to be fiction that the story feels one hundred per cent authentic.

There is nothing phony about Sophie’s Choice. The way he recounts Stingo’s ‘coming of age’ is also downright hilarious in its believability. NOTE: Sophie’s Choice is not for the prudish!!! I read (on that trusty repository of wisdom that is Wikipedia) that in 2002 the novel was removed from a California school library for a period of time following complaints from parents. And I can see why parents would object: the novel is extremely graphic and I have to admit I was myself at times shocked! That they should object to their little darlings reading about Stingo’s throbbing member and his apprenticeship in the ways of fellatio and the sixty-nine position is understandable. However, it is the book’s unapologetic authenticity, its unashamedly realistic account of the pain of growing up, that earns it a place on the literary shelf.

I also learned, again via Wikipedia (God bless the Internet!), that the novel was adapted into an Academy Award-winning movie starring Meryl Streep and Kevin Kline in 1982 and coined the phrase ‘to make a Sophie’s choice’: that is, to choose between two equally awful options. Actually, once I learned the meaning of this idiom I was able to predict the choice that Sophie would eventually have to make. I would definitely recommend Sophie’s Choice but not without the following caveat: not for the faint-hearted.

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