Sophie’s Heart qualifies as one of the most frustrating books I’ve read in a long time. The story is interesting and at times, highly engaging, but there are a number of inconsistencies and so many preachy moments that I couldn’t enjoy it. These inconsistencies, which forward the plot at the expense of character, and the preaching lower a grade that could have been as high as a B.
Sophie Velikonja is a young Czech woman who immigrates to America in the late 1980s. In Prague she was a translator, but she can’t find any professional work here, so she buses tables at a restaurant in Chicago. She hates her job, but after a while, she finds a better job in Wisconsin as the housekeeper to a widower and his three children.
Alec Riley’s wife died less than a year ago, and his life has been a mess ever since. He’s working so much to forget his grief that his home life and children are suffering as a result of it. When his sister introduces Sophie as a solution to some of his problems, he invites her to come and work for him on a trial basis. She is to clean and look after the kids and in return will receive a salary and lodgings in his garage apartment. Neither Alec nor Sophie is sure this will work out, but in a very short time, Sophie takes over the house and the children’s hearts. And after a while, Alec starts taking a personal interest in her.
The first and largest problem I have with Sophie’s Heart is that Sophie is drawn in a completely inaccurate way. Wick seems to have only the most peripheral knowledge of Czech culture, and so Sophie’s character has so many contradictions that she seems almost schizophrenic. First we are told that Sophie is shy, that she doesn’t speak English very well, and that she dresses like a nun who shops at yard sales. Also, she has the belief system of a fundamentalist evangelical Christian, and has no experience with men or awareness of herself as a woman. Essentially she seems like an Amish person or possibly a rural Czech woman from the last century.
Later in the book it is revealed that when she lived in Prague, Sophie was a translator for the Czech government, one so respected that she worked with Gorbachev. She speaks five languages; German, Czech, Italian, Polish, and Russian. This revelation seems a complete denial of everything we have known about Sophie. To get anywhere in the Czech government, let alone to be so highly esteemed as to work with the Soviet Premier, a woman would have to be ambitious and very savvy. She would have to dress professionally, and she would interact with highly sophisticated and complex people. She could not be a pseudo-Amish person. She would be aware of herself as a woman.
More importantly, it is very unlikely that she would have the belief system of an American fundamentalist evangelical. The Czechs are predominantly Catholic, and the small minority of Protestants are either Lutheran or Reformed. Wick seems to have made Sophie Czech so she would be more exotic and talk in a “charming” way. Another reason seems to be so that Wick could make a point about how patronizing Americans are to immigrants. But you can’t have it both ways. Sophie can’t be sophisticated and naive. And that is just how Wick draws her.
My second problem with this book is that it is unduly preachy and moralistic. Almost every scene has someone praying or thinking about God. There are long passages of scripture quotations. At least three times Wick presents the Gospel message at length. We are also, by way of the story, given Wick’s personal views on salvation by grace, creationism, and Christian marriage. Characters who are already extremely saintly fret about small personal flaws like losing one’s temper or being jealous. At times the book seems to be a very long tract. Also, we are introduced to one of the creepiest, most controlling secondary characters I’ve ever seen in a romance novel: Brad Marshall, a would-be suitor for Sophie who sincerely believes that unless women eschew pants and make-up they do not “act and dress as is fitting before the Lord”. And he is supposed to be a sympathetic character!
My third and final problem with this book is that it is not romantic. Though it is marketed as a romance and has all of the elements of a romance, it isn’t really a romance. Sophie and Alec do not notice each other until halfway through the book. Then after they do notice each other, they take an excruciatingly long time to do anything about it. They keep pondering God’s Will. Nothing much really stands in the way of them being together, but they spend an awfully long time wondering if dating is the Right Thing To Do. Their first kiss is in July, and Sophie freaks out. She insists that they go really slow, and, to make things even more complicated, she moves out of the garage apartment so there can be no question about their behavior. At this point I had to wonder, What? I mean, they’re not even kissing. Does anyone believe there’s something shameful going on? But she moves out. Then they get a book on Christian dating and read it with each other, chapter by chapter. Finally, after all of this agonizing, they kiss again at Thanksgiving, after which Sophie again insists that they go slow. How much slower can you go? Wick, by insisting that her characters behave in a excessively proper way, completely sucks all of the chemistry out of every scene they are in. Alec and Sophie act in a way that is completely and absolutely unromantic.
This book is very difficult for me to grade. Obviously, I feel it has a lot of problems. But there is no denying that Lori Wick has some writing ability. Despite my general annoyance with the book, there were spots in which I was charmed or touched by the characters. And beneath all of the proselytizing, this is a story about a family that is healing and that story is told well. But Wick’s main goal seems to be to make converts to her own fundamentalist evangelical version of Christianity, and her goal gets in the way of her writing. So I can only really recommend Sophie’s Heart to a certain audience: those who are already religious and will not mind another sermon.