To back up and ask a fundamental question: Is Sophie alive or dead? In the opening pages, she tells us she’s been killed, hit by a car after leaving the hairdresser. One short section near the middle of the novel, formatted like a play, presents a kind of afterlife tribunal in which Ezra and Sophie’s father argue with orthodox Hungarian rabbis for possession of her soul. Meta moments like these in “Divorcing” more frequently feel like feints toward experimentation than an impediment to understanding. This is especially true in the novel’s second half, which more conventionally recounts Sophie’s early life in Budapest; her voyage, in 1939 at 10 years old, to live in America with her father; and a return trip to Europe later in life.
Introducing Sophie in her adult distractibility and distress and then going backward to show her family’s life in prewar Europe is a rewarding strategy. What could have seemed like a clever but shallow way to do some Freudian searching is much richer, a kind of historical novella within the novel, amplifying Sophie’s character and offering a detailed view of the world that made her. “Her sense of the matter was that things were generally hopeless and that there was no place for her anywhere,” Taubes writes of the adult Sophie. “The world in which she would have wanted to live had ended — before Hiroshima, before Auschwitz.”
In Budapest, we see Sophie’s family gathering to celebrate Passover despite none of them being particularly religious. “Religion was something old and shabby; it was a dusty ugly piece of furniture you were ashamed to have in your own house, even in the back room, but you couldn’t get rid of it any more than you could get rid of Grandmother.” We sit alongside relatives swapping family lore, like the story of the aunt who “escaped from Budapest at the time when they were shooting down all the communists, leaping on a moving train in her nightgown.”
Sophie’s relationships with her parents are beautifully drawn, most impressively in a pair of consecutive scenes recalling her childhood. In the first, her father makes her laugh with his impressions of people, including his patients. “Why did people really come to him, she asked; what was the matter with them, what did he do for them,” Taubes writes. “She listened very carefully so she could avoid this happening to her.” Then her father relates a series of anecdotes characterizing various people he’s treated.
In the following scene, Sophie interrupts her mother reading and the two have a tense conversation, its full emotional contours only partly understood by Sophie. “Do you know why you don’t love me?” her mother asks.
“To say something to stop her mother from continuing, Sophie said, ‘Because you’re always away.’ Now she was angry at herself. She heard that from others. She had no right to say it to her mother. She was glad when her mother was away.”
In one of the heavier-handed moments, Sophie tersely says to a therapist: “I must repeat my mother’s life.” From the start, Sophie’s lifelong love of travel is presented as part free-spiritedness and part coping mechanism, a way to deal with the “oppressive, superfluous” nature of time.
Time and history, as experienced both personally and collectively, are just two of the big ideas this novel leaves a reader pondering. Aptly, given all the psychoanalysis, “Divorcing” is also rife with thoughts about dreams: recounted dreams, dreamlike imagery, the uncertain blurring of dream and reality. Packing for one trip while remembering another, Sophie feels that it’s “disconcerting how the urgencies of dream and waking life correspond. At home in neither. The one who got up no more myself than the one dreaming.”