Comedy, Tragedy, and What Happened to Sophie Wilder
There’s the one who got away. There's the one who broke your heart. And sometimes, for the unlucky in love, there’s the one who broke your heart and then got away. It’s neither tragic nor comic, but instead some mixture of both. In Christopher R. Beha’s What Happened to Sophie Wilder, published-but-quite-possibly-mediocre writer Charlie Blakeman is the unlucky-in-love sort and Sophie Wilder is the one who broke his heart and then got away. But … now she’s back.
There’s a certain kind of competition among lovers working in the same field, and it doesn’t always end well. (Take Kathryn Bigelow and James Cameron; John Gray and Barbara de Angeles; Reese Witherspoon and Ryan Phillippe for example.) When Charlie and Sophie first meet in college, they’re both budding writers with big dreams for accomplished literary lives. As much as they bond over their shared passion for the written word, there is unfortunately always one half of the pair (Charlie) who feels inferior to the other (Sophie). And still, he loves her. She then hurts him, and he loves her still. She then disappears, and still, he loves her.
Charlie wanders through his post-collegiate days, living an unstructured life in a Washington Square apartment in New York City, and it’s only when Sophie reappears for reasons not quite clear that his life begins to excite him again. Was he depressed before her arrival? No – simply indifferent. With her presence, he is brought back to attention as her story of the years that have passed between them begins to unfold: a story of a melancholy marriage, the discovery of a dying man, a faith questioned in profound ways.
At one point early in the novel, Charlie and Sophie spend the summer apart. As autumn begins to set in, the two return to campus, Sophie with an armful of short stories she’s written. One of the stories, titled “Visiting Professor,” finds the story’s main character, a college woman sitting at Penn Station, awaiting her train back to the “boy she loves on campus.” The young woman ponders her recent near-illicit visit with the professor, and thinks ahead to how she’ll describe the evening to the young man that waits for her at university, “wondering what kind of story she wants it to be, whether to make it a comedy or a tragedy or some mixture of both.”
Herein lies the grist of Beha’s novel: Life can be comedy or tragedy, and it’s often in our own re-telling of it that decides the fate of our own life’s story. As dark as What Happened to Sophie Wilder is, it’s in Beha’s telling of it that makes it beautiful, that makes it some mixture of both.