A director at the end of his career grows obsessed with a young actress
Herman Koch is known for his plot-driven literature, full of page-turning suspense and the seductive lure of evil. His books are exciting situational comedies in which Koch castigates the latest well-intentioned trends. His latest novel, Starring Sophia, lampoons the pretentious world of cinema and the arts, while the reader is left in the dark for some time about the true nature of the relationship between an acclaimed director and an up-and-coming actress.
The setting: Amsterdam, New Year’s Eve. Director Stanley Forbes is at home and doesn’t feel like going to the New Year’s Eve dinner. Then he gets a text from his friend Karl, who is looking for his daughter: Do you know where Sophia is? She didn’t come home last night. At that very moment, Sophia comes walking into Stanley’s living room. He won’t reply to his friend’s text until the end of the book.
Is this a Harvey Weinstein kind of situation? The arrogant Stanley is no stranger to manipulation and the abuse of power – he used to seduce girls by promising to cast them in his movies. He first met Sophia when she was sixteen, and she made such an impression on him that he offered her a role right away, in an as-yet undefined movie that he would be making especially for her. In an attempt to have her all to himself, he decided to film it in Australia, far away from her family and boyfriend. When Sophia appears to be getting too close to her co-star, Michael Bender, Stanley tries to keep the two apart. He toys with cutting Michael’s part altogether, and even considers only showing Sophia at the beginning, so that the audience can spend the rest of the movie yearning for her. He justifies these ideas with the old adage ‘kill your darlings’. The reader is likely to look at it differently.
And yet it gradually becomes clear that the relationship between Stanley and Sophia isn’t a #metoo situation. At the end of the book it turns out Sophia has been seriously involved with Michael all along: she is carrying his child. During the touching denouement, we see another side of Stanley. He turns out to be a lonely, grieving man past his personal and professional prime. Stanley is left with no choice but to subject himself to the same critical scrutiny he applies to others, and to act accordingly. This culminates in a fitting ending to a book in which nothing is what it seems. Starring Sophia is a stunning novel about the enchantment of youth and the bittersweet realisation that your best years are behind you.