Christopher R. Beha’s beautiful, whip-smart first novel isn’t a whodunit, so we can clear up its title right away: God is what happened to Sophie Wilder, a 20-something Catholic convert who’s arrived at a state of grace only to see it rattle her everyday life. Her conversion has upended her literary career. It’s estranged her from her husband. And, we eventually learn, it’s forced her to decide what qualifies as mercy toward a dying man.
That’s plenty enough raw meat for a novel, but Sophie is only half the story here: The plot alternates between chapters focused on her (told in appropriately God-like third person) and the first-person recollections of Charlie, Sophie’s ex-boyfriend. The two were once hypercompetitive writers at a small liberal arts college where Sophie easily bested her classmates and became the kind of literary phenom who seems to emerge once a year: The New Yorker! The Paris Review! But not long after her debut collection of short stories came out, she dropped off the literary landscape. As the novel opens, Charlie is wondering about Sophie’s career and souring over his autobiographical first novel, which he knows in his heart is mediocre. “In truth people were simply tired of comfortable young white guys from New York,” he writes. “I couldn’t blame them; I was tired of us too.”
Characters like Charlie have a way of being the lifeblood of romantic comedies and the death of serious novels. Attempts to apply gravitas to callow post-collegiate men like him tend to look ridiculous and unearned. In Charlie’s case, though, we know early on that something about Sophie’s reappearance in his life has shaken him, and Beha has little interest in romanticizing expensively educated hipsters. Charlie lives with his cousin Max, a quick-witted film critic for a New York magazine, and Beha makes plain that Max’s carefree partying and esoteric interests distance him from Charlie and Sophie’s more grave concerns. He’s the kind of person who spends hours fussing over a blog post about the cuckoo-clock line in the movie “The Third Man” — sophisticated, but out of touch.
Beha doesn’t romanticize the newly religious Sophie, either. Conversion, for her, isn’t God’s thunderbolt shocking you into a life of earnest prayer, beatific smiles and Bible-quoting. Being “born from above,” as Sophie thinks of it, makes her aware of the suffering around her. Transformed by reading Saint Augustine and Thomas Merton, she abandons her novel and instead writes grants for charities, where “something she’d written had made a difference in the world. Lives had been changed by words she’d set down.”
Any worthwhile story about faith is about faith tested, and the challenge here comes via her husband’s father, Bill, who’s in the final stages of stomach cancer. Her husband, Tom, has disowned the man, and she’s the last family member around to answer his calls. But Tom has dumped Sophie for a pretty young thing at his law firm, so how much does she owe her father-in-law? Beha carefully depicts Sophie’s shift from keeping Bill at arm’s length — she initially looks at him as somebody to be incorporated into her fiction — to immersing herself in the physical collapse of a man whose waking hours are full of rages against faith: “The first totalitarian,” Bill says of God. “Has to control everything. Reads your mail. Bugs your phone.” Sophie is moved to save Bill’s soul, but she realizes that the job requires navigating a line between loving care and sanctimony. “What did his suffering win him?” Sophie asks. “Where was the nobility in prizing her soul at the cost of his suffering?”
Those are questions fit for a sermon or three, and the book’s brutal ending turns on Sophie’s attempts to answer them. Yet the pleasure of “What Happened to Sophie Wilder” is as much literary as theological. Beha, an editor at Harper’s magazine, is a precise, attentive and unshowy novelist. There are no symphonic sentences to quote in this review because his novel is constructed out of lines simple and functional as fence posts. Its power accrues over pages, as Charlie’s fate intersects with Sophie’s and Bill’s.
Beha announces the book’s stylistic and emotional mission early on, when Sophie delivers a rant about the Beat writers. “There’s no control, no sense of form,” she complains. “Eventually it all turns sentimental, like a conversation with a sloppy drunk.” Her critical opinion of the Beats is debatable, but “What Happened to Sophie Wilder” is the kind of novel she’d admire: sober, unsentimental and delivered with intelligence and passion.
Athitakis is a book reviewer in the District.
WHAT HAPPENED TO SOPHIE WILDER
By Christopher R. Beha
Tin House. 256 pp. Paperback, $15.95