Not long after the film “Blue is the Warmest Color” won the prestigious Palme d’Or at Cannes in 2013, the leading actressescame forward with the claim that the director had emotionally manipulated them during rehearsal.
A similar scenario begins “The Life and Death of Sophie Stark,” Anna North’s novel about the morally complex world of making art. Early in the novel, Sophie, an up-and-coming director, asks an actor to aggressively kiss Allison, knowing that this will traumatize the actress. Perfection, Sophie explains, is something she wants so badly that it doesn’t matter whether getting it means hurting someone’s feelings. “I can’t think about it, even though I know I should,” she says during the confrontation.
As Sophie develops as an artist, the question becomes how far she — or anyone — should go for the sake of art.
Told through a chorus of voices of those closely associated with Sophie — including Allison, who will become her lover; Jacob, a hapless musician who will become her husband; and George, a Hollywood producer — the novel traces the filmmaker’s rise from a “weird” high school loner to a hip, indie filmmaker.
Beginning with “Daniel,” a documentary about a star college basketball player, Sophie quickly gains fame and, despite her unconventional methods, eventually scores a gig as director of a commercial project.
Still, success comes at a price. Sophie, who is frequently described as cold, begins to alienate those she loves — although it takes her a while to see it. She places the relentless pursuit of her vision above all else. As her carefully constructed world begins to fall down around her, the novel’s title reveals not only its significance to Sophie’s life but also what becomes of her artistic legacy.
“The Life and Death of Sophie Stark” is a careful study of artists and the sacrifices they sometimes make for their vision. Yet despite North’s attentive, kaleidoscopic storytelling, the novel ends up being rather bloodless. So does Sophie herself, who by her timely end remains as impenetrable as her own films.
North is a sharp writer with a clear thesis. One wonders what would have happened if the reader had been allowed to feel it.