The harsh ef­fects of an artist’s quest

The Washington Post Sunday - - BOOK WORLD - BY NI­COLE LEE book­world@wash­post.com

Not long af­ter the film “Blue is the­Warmest Color” won the pres­ti­gious Palme d’Or at Cannes in 2013, the lead­ing ac­tresses came 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-and­com­ing 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.

Ni­cole Lee is a writer based in New York. You can find all The Washington Post’s book cov­er­age at wash­ing­ton­post.com/books.

THE LIFE AND DEATH OF SO­PHIE STARK By Anna North Blue Rider. 270 pp. $26.95

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