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What Happened to Sophie Wilder

Charlie Blakeman has just published his first novel, to almost no acclaim. He's living on New York's Washington Square, struggling with his follow-up, and floundering within his pseudointellectual coterie when his college love, Sophie Wilder, returns to his life. Sophie is also struggling, though Charlie isn't sure why, since they've barely spoke, after falling out a decade before. Now Sophie begins to tell Charlie the story of her life since then, particularly the story of the days she spent taking care of a dying man with his own terrible past and of the difficult decision he forced her to make. When she disappears once again, Charlie sets out to discover what happened to Sophie Wilder. Christopher Beha's debut novel explores faith, love, friendship, and, ultimately, the redemptive power of storytelling. 

  • Page Count: 256
  • Direct Price: 12.75
  • List Price: 15.95
  • Trade Paper
  • June 2012
  • 978-1-935639-31-2
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Price as Configured $0.00

Christopher R. Beha is an associate editor at Harper’s Magazine and the author of a memoir, The Whole Five Feet. He contributes frequently to the New York Times Book ReviewWhat Happened to Sophie Wilder is his first novel.

*Minneapolis Star Tribune names What Happened to Sophie Wilder one of the Top Ten Books of the Year

"What Happened to Sophie Wilder is about many things—the New York publishing world, the growing pains of post collegiate life, the rigors of Roman Catholicism—but at its center its a moving meditation on why and for whom we write." —New York Times Book Review

"In this smart short novel What Happened to Sophie Wilder by Christopher R. Beha, a young writer deals with the reappearance and disappearance of the woman he sometimes loved." —Oprah Magazine

"Christopher R. Beha's beautiful, whip-smart first novel . . . is sober, unsentimental and delivered with intelligence and passion." —Washington Post

"What Happened to Sophie Wilder is a remarkable first novel, which should especially be read by those who have given up on contemporary literature. Along with giving them something good to read, it will renew their faith in what literature is capable of achieving." —Commentary

"If What Happened to Sophie Wilder was what it appears to be on first glance -- a simple story about a lovesick writer and his mysterious on-again, off-again girlfriend -- I would not be writing this review. But there is far more to it than that. Enough, perhaps, to make it the best fiction I've read all year."—Journal Star

“[T]his novel is excitingly alert . . . to the ways we understand life in terms of stories, in particular the stories we tell about other people - whether to keep them at a safe distance or to bring them closer to us. More, it's alert to our alertness of this. The story Beha tells about Charlie and Sophie is a convincing contemporary love story, not in spite of its sometimes dizzying self-awareness but, in large part, because of it.”—San Francisco Chronicle

“'What Happened to Sophie Wilder, the first novel by Christopher R. Beha, deserves to be placed in the company of great Catholic fiction by Walker Percy, Graham Greene, Heinrich Boll, Evelyn Waugh, Flannery O’Connor and Andre Dubus." —San Francisco Catholic 

"What Happened to Sophie Wilder is subtle, surprising and, finally, urgent.... Expect it to vibrate in your breastbone." —Cleveland Plain Dealer

"[Beha] crafts a suspenseful story full of twists and turns at the same time that he offers believers a way of moving beyond seeing fait as 'an embarrassment to their own reason and intelligence.'" —Rain Taxi

"Christopher Beha's What Happened to Sophie Wilder is a wonderful novel—smart, sly and lucid, a story about belief in all its forms that is wholly satisfying and quietly thrilling."
—Jess Walter, author of Beautiful Ruins

"Beha's writing is clean, unpretentious, and commanding in its seeming simplicity. He knits Chralie and Sophie's stories together in a seamless, intricate weave, offering an exploration of just how powerful stories can be." —Foreword Magazine

"A crisis of faith is key to the disappearance of a young woman in Christopher Beha’s What Happened to Sophie Wilder(Tin House), which deftly renders the competing impulses—creative, intellectual, emotional—of young writers in New York."—Vogue

Christopher Beha's short but intricately constructed first novel tells the story of two young writers struggling to discover their personal and professional identities, but it's not another excursion through the world of New York's literati. Instead,What Happened to Sophie Wilder is a somber character study focused on the problem of human suffering, the nature of religious belief and the acceptance of moral responsibility.—Shelf Awareness

"Beha’s debut novel (after the memoir The Whole Five Feet) is a thoughtful journey about the place of intellectual curiosity in relation to faith, friendship, and love."—Publishers Weekly

"Complex in structure, plot, and characterization, this promising debut will appeal to fans of literary fiction and the literary scene."—Booklist

"Christopher R Beha's What Happened to Sophie Wilder manages, somehow,
to read both like an auspicious debut and a veteran achievement: it
offers at once the vivid, old-fashioned pleasures of a classic
bildungsroman and a frighteningly intelligent contemporary take on the
ambitions and limits of storytelling and faith. It's a glass-and-steel
penthouse on a foundation of oak, and the most memorable first novel
I've read in some time."—Gideon Lewis-Kraus, author of A Sense of Direction

What Happened to Sophie Wilder is an old fashioned literary novel in
the very best sense--thoughtful and intellectual, moving and
well-wrought. Like its restless, yearning characters, it's not afraid
of the big questions, God and love, work and love, friendship and
love, and yet the solace this impressive debut finds lies as deeply in
the page as in the flesh or the spirit. Beha has managed to produce a
book that is satisfying for anyone who reads in order to live."
—Helen Schulman, author of This Beautiful Life

"What Happened to Sophie Wilder is an imperishable gift of
storytelling, a novel built sturdily of wisdom, beauty, and love.
Christopher R. Beha writes with Jamesian sophistication about the
enduring enigma of our inner lives, and the result is a title
character who will dwell in you always." —William Giraldi, author of Busy Monsters

"It takes courage to write a book placing sincere religious feelings at the very center of contemporary young, urban life. Chris Beha--a writer mature beyond his years--has done just that in What Happened to Sophie Wilder, a modern fable of faith and doubt, ambition and love, written with tender sentiment and striking moral intelligence. Open this book and you'll find the grain of our talk and the soul of our thought rendered at once exotic and utterly recognizable.—Jon Raymond, author of Rain Dragon

Tin House Books Interview with Christopher R. Beha


TH: The two main characters in What Happened to Sophie Wilder have both written first books—one is successful, the other dies quietly—did writing your own debut novel push you to imagine these scenarios?


CB: I was aware of the traps that first-time novelists often fall into, particularly solipsism and a certain degree of formal preciousness—traps that I wanted to avoid. I found myself creating characters who had already fallen into these traps and were trying to escape them. Both Charlie and Sophie are in need of being pulled out of themselves and pushed into the world. Writing about this struggle was one way of pushing myself out into the world. I should add that if Charlie’s first novel was something of a failure, my “first” novel was an even bigger failure, insofar as it remains in a drawer and is unlikely ever to see the light of day. This isn’t any great tragedy, and I’m happy to think of What Happened to Sophie Wilder as my real first novel. But I did have the experience to draw from.


TH: In a wonderful scene, Sophie points out partygoers to Charlie, identifying each as a character in Charlie’s recently published novel.  Charlie realizes that even though he wrote with Sophie in mind, he ended up writing “the kind of book she hated so much: real-life experience thrown down on the page with­out any transformation.”  What kind of balance between invention and experience do want to strike in your work?


CB: This tendency toward unimaginative autobiography is one of the first-novel traps I’m talking about above. As it happens, there is very little autobiographical material in Sophie Wilder, except in a demographic sense. A census taker, collecting information about our ages, education levels, professions, geographical and economic backgrounds, would be unable to distinguish me from these characters. But the same could be said of a lot of people who don’t resemble me in the slightest.


TH: The novel seems to tenderly mock reverence for the literary elite, but at the same time, clearly finds these writers important. Do you have the same ambivalent feelings yourself?


CB: Our culture works hard at times to embarrass people who take certain books or movies or pieces of music seriously. In response, one develops a self-protective irony toward one’s own tastes. I’ve seen lots of people do it. I do it myself, although I wish I did not. It’s an important part of Charlie’s point of view mostly because I don’t know anyone at all like Charlie who doesn’t fall prey to the habit.


But note: Sophie shows far less of this tendency. It’s part of what makes her so strange to Charlie upon her return to his life. One of the many things that religion offers is a framework for talking about big questions that isn’t considered pretentious or embarrassing. Both Charlie and Sophie are looking for such a framework. It is Charlie’s tragedy that he has not found one; it is Sophie’s tragedy that she has. And it is my own tragedy that even as I write those words I anticipate undermining them with a wink or a joke.


TH: You strike a wonderful balance between the hopefulness and audacity of your characters as college students and the aimlessness they display in their post collegiate decade. What is it about the years immediately following college that interest you?


CB: One of the reasons I wanted to write about Charlie’s and Sophie’s college years and also the years immediately after is that there is a level of intellectual engagement and enthusiasm that is allowed and even encouraged in college that is far less acceptable out in the world. To discover this can be a real disappointment, particularly if you come to believe, while in college, that this level of intellectual engagement is a common feature of “adult” life, only to discover that “real” adults find it rather childish—touching, perhaps, but also somewhat laughable.


Beyond that, there is a line from Joan Didion’s Goodbye to All That, which I will quote in full here, since I have had it inscribed in my heart since the first time I read it: “That was the year, my twenty-eighth, when I was discovering that not all of the promises would be kept, that some things are in fact irrevocable and that it had counted after all, every evasion and every procrastination, every word, all of it.” This is roughly Sophie’s and Charlie’s age during the main events in the book, and the discovery that not all promises are kept, that some things are in fact irrevocable, is among the novel’s primary subjects. I’m reluctant to say that the novel is “about” any one thing, but if forced I would say that it is about how one lives with this discovery.


TH: Did you do a lot of research for Sophie’s spiritual transformation? What did you call on from your experience or what did you read to get that right?


CB: I did a fair amount of research. I read about the experience of conversion, from Paul to Augustine to Ignatius Loyola to Thomas Merton. But I was mostly drawing from my own spiritual experiences, as one raised Catholic, one who took my beliefs very seriously and considers it something of a personal disaster that somewhere along the way I lost the ability to sustain that belief. I can’t exactly say that I wish I still believed, since that would mean wishing that nearly every part of me were different than it is. And I think my treatment of Sophie shows that I am not under any illusions that having the capacity for belief solves everything, particularly as one might well live in fear of losing that capacity again.


TH: You reveal the personality of your characters wonderfully through their choices of literature. Why is Sophie specifically drawn to T. S. Eliot’s Ash Wednesday ? The Book of Job?


CB: The thing I find most striking about Eliot’s poem is the sense of exhaustion, not just in the famous line that Sophie quotes, “Because I do not hope to turn again,” but in the poetic voice that asks itself, “Why should the aged eagle stretch its wings?” It’s amazing to think that Eliot was still in his thirties when he started writing this poem, almost as amazing as it is to think that he was my age when he wrote The Waste Land. It’s even comical, in the way that Didion’s youthful ennui can seem comical. But this premature exhaustion is an important element of Sophie’s character, so I understood that she would be drawn to the poem. It also happened to be the first major poem Eliot wrote after his conversion, and the problem of writing after conversion is rather urgent for Sophie. To really convert—to turn—means naturally not to hope to turn again. It means wanting the journey to be over. And yet writing is turning, journeying.


As for the Book of Job, it is the part of the Bible to which one is routinely referred when faced with the problem of suffering in the world, despite the fact that its answers to this problem are breathtakingly unsatisfactory. I’ve always found Job’s wife to be a rather underappreciated character. Of course, she tells Job to “curse God, and die.” This response to catastrophe makes a lot more sense to me in many ways than Job’s does. Not incidentally, it’s Bill Crane’s response in my novel. If I bring the Book of Job into the novel at the time that Sophie and Bill are stuck in a battle of wills together, this is the resonance I most mean to be sounding out.


TH: Charlie and Sophie worry about their “follow-up” novel. Was the idea of a second novel already knocking around while you were working on this one?


I wouldn’t say it was in my mind in quite so pressing a way as it was for them—I still had the first one to worry about. But I was aware that there were certain peripheral characters in the book whose stories would be worth telling, and I have recently started a new novel that tells some of those stories.