"I have thought it might be possible to make a stab at understanding Auschwitz by trying to understand Sophie, who to say the least was a cluster of contradictions."But then later, near the end:
"No one will ever understand Auschwitz."Not just himself, NO ONE will ever understand Auschwitz. Such is the magnitude of the lessons Stingo learns from what happened during that fateful summer in 1947. Appearances are deceiving, and the more you learn about the people you thought you loved and trusted, the less you really understand them. It's a cynic's view to be sure, but one can hardly blame Stingo for cynicism given the story he tells us.
Stingo, a 22-year-old Southerner-transplanted-to-New-York, has just been fired from a soulless editing job at McGraw Hill, and has moved to Brooklyn to write his great Southern novel. There, in the same boarding house, he meets Sophie, a 29-year-old Polish refugee, and Aucshwitz survivor (even though she's not Jewish — she was rounded up and taken to the concentration camp in 1943 for stealing a ham to feed her malnourished kids). Sophie's beau is the brilliant, eccentric Nathan. The three become fast friends — and Stingo begins to harbor a forbidden love for Sophie.
As Nathan becomes more eccentric, and Sophie reveals more and more details about her past life, as well as the last year of her life with Nathan in New York, Stingo struggles to make sense of it all. The cold, black-and-white logic of psychology competes with both his feelings for Sophie and also his (and anyone's) inability to understand what the lasting effects of Auschwitz have been upon her. Codependency? Alcoholism? Masochism? All of those are just words, and all fail spectacularly to capture what is really happening inside Sophie's head.
This is, quite frankly, the saddest novel I've ever read — and one of the most intense. It's a story that doesn't exactly move along at the speed of light (Styron, the quintessential mid-century New York intellectual, writes rather densely), but it's absolutely fascinating nonetheless.
Many people are probably more familiar with this story from its early-80s film, and Meryl Streep's Oscar-wining role as Sophie. I wasn't. At all. So I'm still blown away at, first and foremost, the story itself, and secondly, how carefully each section of story is revealed — and how what you learn about the characters shapes how you view past events. I loved it, but I won't recommend it for probably 90 percent of readers. If you try it, spend some time gearing yourself up first.