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'Sophie Stark' Finds It Hard To Learn How To Be Human

Toward the beginning of The Life and Death of Sophie Stark, an actress reflects on her decision to leave West Virginia for New York City. Her first few days in the city are disastrous; she moves from bad job to bad job while living in a basement apartment with a dirt floor. "I felt like I'd come to a place for people who didn't know how to be people," she says, "and if I was there I must not really know how to be a person either."

It's not always easy to know how to be a human being, and it's getting harder, perhaps, as more and more people interact with one another only behind screens. In The Life and Death of Sophie Stark, Anna North tells the story of a young woman who struggles with what it means to be a person in a screen-saturated world. The titular Sophie, a doomed art-house film director, can't quite figure out how to communicate her thoughts or feelings unless she's behind a camera. It makes for an extraordinarily moving and unsettling novel about how difficult it is for some people just to relate, in any way, to those around them.

North's novel is narrated by Sophie's friends and family — her ex-lover, her brother, a musician she eventually marries for reasons that are unclear even to her, and it opens with a chapter told from the point of view of Allison, the actress from West Virginia, whom Sophie approaches to star in her film. The movie is based on an anecdote, mostly fictional, that Allison told at an open-mic storytelling night in a Brooklyn bar.

The two become lovers, but the romance sours when Sophie endangers their relationship for a good shot: "Allison, you know when you want something to be perfect?" she says. "Sometimes I just want that so badly that I don't think about what will happen or how other people feel. I can't think about it, even though I know I should."

As the novel continues, Sophie's past and future relationships with everyone play out much the same way. Her brother talks about their upbringing as children of a single mother (" ... one day she was into Amway and the next day she was into Jesus, and she was never that into us") and Sophie's obsession with a star basketball player at their college. She essentially stalks the player, filming him every chance she gets, until she's viciously attacked and humiliated by some of his friends.

We learn both more and less about Sophie as the book progresses toward its tragic end. As she becomes more famous, eventually tapped to direct a high-profile historical drama, she becomes harder to know, and less sure about herself. "I used to think I was special, and that was why I seemed to [mess] everything up all the time," she tells a college acquaintance years after they first met each other. "But now I know it's just because I'm not a very good person."

Sophie is difficult to understand, and that's exactly what makes her such an original, beautifully drawn character. Although she's only portrayed obliquely, through the eyes of the people she's known, she comes across as a fully realized person — uncomfortable in her own skin and confused by human interaction, but still deeply sensitive and occasionally, in her own way, compassionate. That's a hard thing to pull off with a series of narrators; it's a risky structure that works brilliantly, thanks to North's skill and intelligence.

The same goes for the other characters, each of whom is incredibly detailed and realistic, sometimes heartbreakingly so. North inhabits each of their voices beautifully, with no condescension or moralizing; she challenges the reader to see these people as real human beings, without judgment or condemnation. That's becoming difficult in an age of instant reactions and assumptions, when we're sometimes reluctant to realize that actors in a movie, or avatars on the Internet, represent real people behind the pixels.

North is a smart writer as well as a deeply humane one, and The Life and Death of Sophie Stark is a bold and graceful novel, executed with incredible artistry. The excellent writing aside, it's worth a read just to meet Sophie, an unforgettable character who can't quite manage to run away from herself: "I thought making movies would make me more like other people. But sometimes I think it just makes me even more like me."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Michael Schaub is a writer, book critic and regular contributor to NPR Books. His work has appeared in The Washington Post, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Portland Mercury and The Austin Chronicle, among other publications. He lives in Austin, Texas.
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