My junior year of high school we were unfortunate in that we lost two students during the school year – a senior over Thanksgiving break and a junior over April vacation. In the week that followed those tragic deaths (one car accident, one skiing accident) the school put up large memory walls in the halls for everyone who wanted to be able to write their thoughts, prayers, and memories on to help with the healing process. Reading the upcoming The Life and Death of Sophie Stark by Anna North reminded me a lot of those strange days, trying to figure out what we were feeling and how to convey it particularly when the strongest memories of those lost are not always pleasant or comforting. Sophie Stark is a brutally honest examination of the idea that it’s the people we love most who can hurt us the most… and vice versa.
Using a series of first person narratives from the people in Sophie Stark’s life that had the greatest impact on her life, the story begins in the middle with Allison explaining how she met Sophie and how the two of them fell into a relationship while making a movie. It is through film that Sophie feels the most connected to those around her, that she feels best able to communicate – unfortunately, she is willing to do whatever it takes to make her films the best they can be, even when the cost might be her personal relationships. Jumping back and forth in time from Sophie’s days in college through her final days, the characters and the reader are all left wondering just how much anyone understood Sophie.
Though Sophie is the central subject of the characters’ narratives, most of the people speaking about her were Sophie’s subjects when it came to the films she made. The stories she told were not really hers to tell so after her death, the tables are turned and they have their turn to tell her story as they see fit. There are suggestions that Sophie’s difficulties relating to the world at large were more than just being socially awkward or shy (the way she’s presented by several of the narrators made me think she might have some degree of autism like aspergers). Though not everyone would have experienced her level of frustration with the desire to be understood, it is something incredibly relatable along with the ways that Sophie inadvertently (and sometimes purposely) hurts those who love and trust her.
Most of the narrators were male and/or former romantic partners of Sophie, something I found a little odd. In fact, Allison is the only female voice the reader hears directly. She has more pages of narrative than any other character, and it’s true that in the novel Sophie doesn’t have a lot of friends, female or male. Some of the characters whose voices we heard felt out of proportion to the expected role they played in her life (the section narrated by Jacob, Sophie’s husband, is one of the shorter ones and takes up almost as many pages as George, a producer she knew briefly in LA) but by the end of the novel it all makes an unusual sort of sense. Despite the lack of female voices, one thing the novel did extremely well was its portrayal of the bisexuality of Allison and Sophie. It’s something that is just there. There’s a brief acknowledgement from Allison who hadn’t realized that she would ever want to be in that kind of relationship before meeting Sophie, but after that it is treated the same as any other relationship – which is wonderfully refreshing. Despite the fact that most of the narrators had romantic relationships with Sophie at some point, the book never feels like that’s what it’s about; it is about human connection and understanding – or misunderstanding. It also deals really well with Allison’s complex reaction to a traumatic event in her past and how that affected the person she became.
I’ve had a difficult time with first person narratives in recent years (because there are so many, particularly in my favorite genres) but in the case of The Life and Death of Sophie Stark it works brilliantly. The characters’ voices aren’t as distinctive as someone like Kingsolver manages in The Poisonwood Bible but they work well for the story they’re telling. At times the individual sections felt a bit long (even with occasional small breaks). Only Allison and Robbie really pop up more than once as narrators though I would have liked to hear from some of the others again, particularly their reactions in the wake of hearing about Sophie’s death – which isn’t really a spoiler since it’s part of the novel’s title. Ultimately, The Life and Death of Sophie Stark is a novel that surprised me with how much I liked it.
The Life and Death of Sophie Stark by Anna North will be available for purchase May 19, 2015.