WRITERS WRITING about writers—in the wrong hands it's trouble, a failure of imagination or experience. And some amount of the tension in Christopher Beha's new novel What Happened to Sophie Wilder does derive from particularly writerly problems. One of its central characters, Charlie Blakeman, is caught in a sophomore slump after his first novel was indifferently received, forcing him to realize that he's no longer "promising"—that "after 28, you're judged on your merits," not your potential.
But there's far more to Beha's novel than the anxiety of putting pen to paper, namely the story proposed by the book's matter-of-fact title. Charlie and Sophie Wilder were college lovers—sweetheart is too sweet a word—whose on-again, off-again relationship was punctuated by infidelity and lack of commitment, mostly on Sophie's part. During one of their off-agains, Sophie unexpectedly falls for a fellow classmate, Tom; the very decency and stolidity she is attracted to in Charlie causes her to write him off as boring. Tom and Sophie marry; years pass, until one day, Sophie abruptly appears at a party at Charlie's house. She's left her husband, and there's a story there.
The novel is told in alternating chapters, skipping between Charlie's perspective on the present, and Sophie's on her own past. Sophie's is the more interesting storyline: As her marriage falls apart, she's driven to explore her husband's history, and his relationship with his long-estranged father-in-law, who is dying, very soon, of cancer. When it's Charlie's turn for a chapter, we, like him, are just waiting for Sophie to come back. The reader feels the same way about Charlie that Sophie does, in fact, when she reads his book: "It told the story of a boy like Charlie, living with a boy like Max, going to literary parties, taking drugs, sleeping with pretty young publicists. It was all so sad to Sophie, and she couldn't tell if Charlie had meant it to be." (It doesn't help that Charlie's chapters are punctuated with at-times insufferable banter between Charlie and his cousin Max, an alt-weekly film critic; no one should ever use the phrase "hermeneutic toolkit" as a punch line.) Sophie's story has movement, depth, and a richness of emotion that Charlie's life never manages—because Charlie is waiting for his story to begin, and Sophie, for better and worse, is living hers.