I will say this first off: I wish that I hadn't taken so long to read this novel. I wish I could have sat down and read the whole thing from cover to cover. But sometimes life gets in the way. I recognized when I was reading it that I was missing some of the emotional power of this wonderful novel because my reading was so spaced out over time.
That said, here is my reaction: Wow. This is an amazing book. It is deeply emotionally powerful...and deeply depressing. If you are not ready to be socked in the face by the reality of this novel - Auschwitz and its aftermath basically - don't read it.
There are many things in this novel that were unique to my reading experience: firstly, that it takes place in the period immediately following WWII - 1946, 1947. Other than Kerouac, I couldn't think of another novel that takes place then...or deals exclusively with that time. Secondly, the main character of the novel, Sophie, went through the horrors of Auschwitz, but wasn't Jewish. Up to this point, most of my dealings with Holocaust-related literature focus on the experience of Jews, but of course every other cross-section of humanity was there as well. Thirdly, Sophie wasn't a hero. In this respect, Sophie's story was probably closer to the story of your every day, average person living under Nazi rule. She wasn't involved in the resistance. She had opportunities to do so, but didn't. She tried everything she could to save her own life, and also the life of her son. Most people might talk about how they would have fought the Nazis...they would have been another Oscar Schindler if given the chance...they would have been brave. But the fact that there weren't more Oscar Schindlers...that while some people did what they could, there were thousands - millions - of people who did nothing. And they did nothing for the same reasons that Sophie did nothing. We might like to imagine that we would have done something, but human nature tells us that we probably won't have done anything. Is that cowardly? I don't know. It wasn't heroic, but I don't know if it was cowardly. Lastly, most books about the Holocaust are about just that...they take place in the camps, or during that time. Styron took a different path. While we could say that Sophie's Choice is about Stingo, the 22-year-old Virginian come to Brooklyn to write his first novel where he meets Nathan and Sophie and it's the story of their friendship and their tragic end, it's really about the aftermath of Auschwitz. Sophie wouldn't have happened if it hadn't been for Auschwitz...everything in the book is tainted with that.
And while all of that is clever, different from the standard, run-of-the-mill (if there could be such a thing) Holocaust novel, what makes this book so amazing, so emotionally hard-hitting is Styron's language. He is a beautiful writer. Some have complained that the sex scenes were stifled, that Sophie doesn't really have any redeeming qualities except that she was at Auschwitz, and that Stingo doesn't have many redeeming qualities himself. I can't really argue with any of those points. But none of that diminishes the beauty, the pervasive sadness of this story. If you've seen the movie, you know what I'm talking about.
I also have a theory that parts of Water for Elephants were lifted from Sophie's Choice, either the book and/or movie... though I'm not accusing Gruen of plagiarism...it might have been subconscious. This thought first came to me when I watched the movie in August or September. There is a scene where Stingo and Sophie are in Sophie's room with a bottle of champagne. They are going to surprise Nathan with a celebration for his important discovery he made at the lab that day...the cure for cancer or whatever it is he says. So, Sophie and Stingo are fiddling around, getting this stuff ready, and Nathan arrives early. Just walking in on that scene, you might think something is up, and Nathan immediately begins to accuse Sophie of doing more than fiddling behind his back. I knew immediately that I had seen this scene somewhere before. I wracked my brain until I finally came upon it: Water for Elephants. There is a scene in that book that is exactly the same, in which Jacob and Marlena are fiddling with a bottle of champagne because they are going to surprise August after some triumph of the circus (I don't remember what exactly)...and August walks in on this and thinks there is something up and begins accusing them. IT'S EXACTLY THE SAME SCENE. And then, something else hit me later on in the movie: Nathan is a paranoid schizophrenic. And guess what - he displays exactly the same characteristics of another paranoid schizophrenic - August in Water for Elephants. In both cases it's revealed by someone else after Nathan/August goes nuts...in SC it's Nathan's brother; in WfE, it's the circus leader. Then there is the obvious structure parallel: the love triangle made up of Marlene/Sophie, August/Nathan, and the young, inexperienced newcomer, Stingo/Jacob. I of course don't know if Gruen ever saw or read Sophie's Choice, so I can't say if it was actually copied from there or not - on purpose or subconsciously, but the parallels are there. After a search around some other places on the net, I'm not the only person to have noticed these connections.
Anyway, Sophie's Choice was great. I once described Lolita as being achingly beautiful...I think that that phrase describes this novel as well. I could feel the horribly tragic longing in Stingo, and in Sophie. I know in the coming years, I will revisit it. It's just too powerful not to be drawn back to. I already miss it.