I only got through half of a novel that Emma Donoghue (Room) flogs as “a dissection of genius and the havoc it can wreak, but also a thunderously good story.” (Feel free to discount my opinion, but I was not willing to continue with an unsatisfactory work of fiction.) I can understand Donoghue’s putative “genius” reference, the protagonist in question harboring dreams of success as a film producer, all her energies directed toward the fulfillment of her art. But rather than tell Sophie’s story in her own words, the author frames Sophie Stark’s life in the experiences of others, usually unwitting people she recruits to star in a succession of films, beginning with one of a school basketball player. Each individual tale--like a short story--forms a fragment of the whole, a composite of the woman behind the camera.
An oddball and misfit with no friends since childhood, Sophie (born Emily Buckley) gradually acquires the veneer of the avante garde, from the bizarre way she dresses to a succession of bisexual relationships, flaunting her difference when she realizes how far her approach to life is from the mainstream--hence, the attraction to the perception as “genius” instead of
"outlier" or the crueler “freak.” To add to her mystique, Sophie frequently inserts herself into the lives of those she uses in her films, whether sexually or emotionally, mining their personal lives for intimate revelations or moments with which to shock her audience. That she lies, manipulates, and uses these people is a manifestation of her devotion to art before compassion or empathy.
Whether in the voice of Allison, Robbie (Sophie’s brother), Jacob (her husband), or Daniel (the subject of her first film), etc., each character
serves a function in furthering Sophie’s career. These chapters are broken up by the reviews of a follower of her films, R. Benjamin Martin, who seems but an extension of Sophie’s artistic hubris. The effect is less than satisfying--and hardly “thunderously good,” in Donoghue’s words. Pretentious and emotionally void are more accurate descriptions of a protagonist with no redeeming qualities, save her claim to artistic brilliance at the expense of personal relationships. The writing is fine and there may be readers who find this novel interesting. However, for this avid reader, the energy spent on such an unfulfilling subject becomes more irritating than acceptable. As it turns out, I haven’t the energy or the inclination to spend any more time on a subject that does not inspire any curiosity.