Mild Spoiler Alert: If you are at all interested in reading this novel I strongly suggest you know as little as possible before reading it, to make the experience more enjoyable.
I had not seen the movie when this book rose to the top of my fiction reading list, by accident. (I really don’t know how I came across it.) I knew that the book had something to do with a terrible choice during the Holocaust, and I worried that this knowledge might spoil the book for me, but I didn’t know anything else about the novel. So I gritted my teeth and prepared for a slog.
The first thing I must say about this novel is that Styron does an excellent job of enticing the reader into a story in a way that you would not expect if you knew anything at all about this novel. If you were reading this when it came out and you didn’t know anything about it, the gist of the story would come as a surprise to you close to 100 pages into the book. Before that, you get a funny, at times crude, struggling writer story. It reminds me a little bit of Everything is Illuminated (haven’t read the book but seen the movie), which may have been inspired by this. It’s a neat trick, and it makes this book far more readable than I would have ever imagined, because the protagonist (not Sophie) is important to you before you get to the heavy stuff.
So this is a compelling, moving, at times provocative novel, that contains some truly great moments. Though I think it is flawed (see below), I think its strengths are good enough that it’s pretty much a must read. Art shouldn’t always be easy especially when dealing with this type of subject matter, but much of this is a remarkably easy read, while still being thought-provoking and, as I said, moving. It’s an accomplishment.
It could have been better, however. And for me, there are at least two things that keep it from being an outright classic. Neither is the ethnicity of Sophie. I reject the idea that this novel is some kind of anti-Jewish screed because Sophie isn’t Jewish. Yes, this novel is claiming that the Holocaust wasn’t merely about the extermination of the Jews. Yes, I can see why that might bother you if you are Jewish and especially if relatives of yours died in the Holocaust. But there is a lot going on in this long, long book, and to dismiss it merely because Styron appears concerned with everyone who died in the Holocaust, rather than just the Jews seems pretty simplistic to me. Anyway…
The book is over-written. I don’t know if Styron’s language is always like this but, for an author whose prose is quite readable, he often throws in words which even a crossword addict like me has to look up. I have no idea why he does this – except to seem smart – but it can be annoying. This doesn’t feel like modern literature most of the time, until you have to reach for your thesaurus. And it’s just too damn long. I mean, this is a long, long novel, full of digressions about the main character (the author, basically) and the Holocaust. Some of these could have been excised entirely or at least edited down and the book would be less daunting to those who haven’t yet read it. (It might actually be superior too; at least I would think so.)
The other thing is that I disagree heartily with Styron’s conclusion about the Holocaust. We both appear to be existentialists in some sense, but he is a religious one and I am not. I do not see for a moment what he sees and he doesn’t make a compelling case for a world with god in it. If anything, you could argue he makes a compelling case for a world without god, yet decides there is one still. (That is very religious existentialist, very Dostoevsky. It is not compelling if you do not have faith.)
But still: this is very much worth your time and much, much more of a page-turner that you would ever expect.