Last month, my local library, the Lansing Community Library, sponsored a new adult book club. About half a dozen people met initially to get to know each other, make book recommendations, decide on when to meet and what book to read first. Since “Banned Book Week” occurs annually at the end of September, at our request, Director, Teri Wojtalewicz, recited a list published by the ALA of the top 100 banned books. We determined that Sophie’s Choice by William Styron was a book that most of us had not read yet and thus became our first “Book of the Month” read.
On the second Thursday of October, we met again and gathered in a few new readers. We had a lively discussion, as can be expected from a book that is challenged frequently for some of its content. Those who had read it in their 20s and re-read it for the group felt like they were reading a different book from what they remembered. I’ve had that same experience many times when returning to books I read from much earlier in my life.
Other readers mentioned and appreciated the use of music for the emotional apexes and nadirs Sophie experienced. Another recurring comment involved the writing style of the author (or Stingo, whose life seemed to somewhat mirror the author’s protagonist), which involved the use of large unfamiliar words and incredibly long sentences. Since I was/am reading the ebook edition, I took occasional advantage of the built-in dictionary available at the touch of a finger.
One reader came prepared with several questions, her first being whether we thought the author used an unreliable narrator approach in this novel. We responded with many observations about Sophie’s credibility and to some extent Stingo’s account of Sophie or Nathan’s actions. I had already commented in our GoodReads group when I began reading Sophie’s Choice that I dislike first person narratives. I explained during our discussion the reason why. A first person narrative is a single point-of-view with no other corroborating witness accounts to confirm or deny its veracity. First person also tends to deflate the suspense of a situation if it directly involves the narrator (because you know they are not going to die because they live to tell the story) but in this case, Stingo is the witness, the only witness, to Sophie and Nathan’s tragic tale.
Many of us had seen the movie, but I have not yet. Many of us also agreed this was not a book you would pull off the shelf on a rainy weekend to reread just for the fun of it. To say the material is a bit dark would be an understatement.
Our discussion began winding down at about the one hour mark, when we switched gears to make recommendations for a lighter read in December. Our November book is already selected, The Seamstress by Sara Tuvel Bernstein. I solicited some recommendations, which I noted in our GoodReads group discussion thread.
I admit I did not finish reading Sophie’s Choice, but I do plan to make the attempt as I can between other book club reads. I can also understand why this book is often challenged by parents in school libraries, despite its winning the National Book Award in 1980.
My apologies to other members of the club for not taking notes during our discussion. I related the above from memory so I apologize if I misremembered something or completely forgot to mention a keypoint or question you related. Feel free to comment on this post or email me with additions or corrections.
We’ll meet again on the second Thursday of November to discuss The Seamstress. Perhaps you’ll join us?