After failing an IQ assessment, Sophie Stark explains her problem with the test makers in her characteristically matter-of-fact tone, “They tell you stories that don’t make sense and ask you questions where the answer could be anything. It scared me. I just decided not to say anything.” Sophie, the titular nexus of Anna North’s new novel, The Life and Death of Sophie Stark, is somewhat of a savant. Once she discovered her knack for and interest in movie-making -- a pastime she stumbled upon when she began following and documenting her college’s star basketball player, Daniel –- the art consumed her life, her time and her relationships.
North’s novel tells her story through anecdotes delivered by those Sophie developed close relationships with: Daniel, her brother Robbie, her girlfriend Allison, and her eventual husband, Jacob. Remarking on the insufficiency of records and personal accounts to fully illustrate a person’s interior life, North never gives Sophie a voice. Those in her life, including a pompous journalist who follows her entire career, speak for her.
What we gather from these accounts is that Sophie is unconventional in her approach to filmmaking, and to relationships. With the former, she seeks out individuals who inspire her rather than trained actors to carry and even develop the stories she tells. Allison, for example, is “discovered” by Sophie while performing at a reading series. The event is purportedly for true tales, and Allison relates a scary run-in with a violent classmate, which urged her to escape her tiny hometown and take up residence in a shabby apartment in Brooklyn. Sophie sees through the act, and approaches Allison, asserting that her story is a fiction, but a gripping one.
“When people lie about their pasts,” she observes, “they push their chests out and stand up straight, like someone’s going to challenge them.”
Though socially awkward herself –- she’s bullied from childhood through college -– Sophie picks up on the intricacies of other people’s personalities, and unabashedly examines them out loud. Though the trait translates into emotionally poignant filmmaking, it makes maintaining enduring relationships nearly impossible. Ironically, her ability to understand people, and to capture that understanding on film, creates a tragic distance between her and those she loves.
After meeting Allison, Sophie urges her to star in her second film -- the first that’s funded, and not an amateur student endeavor like her vague but lauded documentary "Daniel," which captured the playful, childlike side of the above mentioned college basketball star. Allison, with zero acting experience but just as many job prospects otherwise, reluctantly agrees, and the two mold her fabricated hometown story into a critically-loved movie. In the process the two shack up, and Sophie’s able to wield this closeness to direct Allison as she pleases, but the cost of this manipulation is great.
Allison and Sophie’s affair recurs like an echo throughout the book and Sophie’s life; though her works are honest and moving, her interactions with others is decidedly the opposite. In Sophie, North manages to bring to life a character whose life and work are truly inseparable, for better or for worse. Her life is painted mostly as noble, but Sophie asks the reader to question the value of complete devotion, and of the legacies we leave behind us.
The Bottom Line: Sophie Stark is a cleverly assembled work that examines the maniacal devotion it takes to create art. It's also a fun dive into the world of movie-making, and a character study that will move you to tears.
Who wrote it?: Anna North is the author of America Pacifica, and is a staff editor at The New York Times.
Who will read it?: Those interested in the movie business, or who prefer narratives focused on a single, compelling hero.
Opening lines: When Sophie first saw me, I was onstage. This girl Irina who I lived with at the time had organized a storytelling series at a bar in Bushwick, and after a couple weeks of watching I decided I wanted to tell a story too.
Notable passage: Sophie understood a lot more about people and how to play them than she ever let on. I think she knew that I still loved her and that I'd be flattered that she needed me. I think the minute I opened the door, she knew she had me around her finger. I thought all this even then. And I'd talked a lot over the years about how Sophie was bad for me. Just the week before I'd told my castmates after a couple of beers that I thought she was too self-centered to ever really love anyone. But now when I think about that night, I think about something my stepdad once said when my mom yelled at him for quitting AA. He told her in his sad, quiet voice, "Sometimes the sick part of me just feels like the truest part."
The Life and Death of Sophie Stark by Anna North Blue Rider Press, $26.95 Published May 19, 2015
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