Sofie & Cecilia by Katherine Ashenburg
Sofie & Cecilia is a first novel by Katherine Ashenburg, an academic and an accomplished journalist and author, who has now turned to fiction to tell the story of a female friendship that takes place over half a century, from the late 1800s until the mid 1930s. Although the characters are “loosely based” upon the lives of two Swedish artists, it would make absolutely no difference to the power of the story if they were not. And, in fact, it is the women, the two wives of the artists who are at the centre of the novel and make it such a compelling story.
We meet the two women in1882 and 1887. Sofie marries Nils Olsson, and immediately falls into a life of child bearing and support of a husband who assumes her assistance as his due. Though Sofie was herself a talented artist, who had studied painting, it is given up – as is expected - when she marries. She takes up spinning and weaving and needlework as a vehicle for her need to be creative, to use her sense of colour to make beautiful things. It is Nils work that is important.
Cecilia is from a well to do Jewish family, and waits some time to marry Lars Vogt. In agreement with the wishes of her family, it is not until Lars has established himself that the marriage takes place.
The two women meet through their husbands work, and begin a friendship that will span half a century. They soon discover that they are both readers of literary fiction, and readers of this novel will delight in the exchanges of letters, and the conversations between the women as they discuss their feelings about the books they are reading – from Dickens, to Mary Shelly, to Virginia Woolf.
Then, there are descriptions of the astounding beauty of the landscape, and summers spent in the Archipelago – a landscape so very similar to Georgian Bay. There are long summer days with picnics, and evenings of conversation. Both couples are interested in local folk-art and the primitive objects of daily life that are fast disappearing in a modern world. With the foresight to collect the old costumes, household objects, and clothing they amass what will become a museum collection.
This is a novel that explores questions of fidelity, loyalty, sacrifice, and respect. These are narcissistic men who have little respect for marriage vows. The women know their support makes it possible for their husbands to concentrate on their careers, but they also struggle with the lack of acknowledgment of their sacrifice. Though Sofie does consider leaving her marriage, she thinks, “but such a dense web of strings bind us together. I do not see how I could cut it.” Her loyalty is both admirable and sad.
Toward the end of the novel Cecilia says to Sofie, “I always thought that when I was old, I would have worked everything out, and I would have no worries”. Some time later, Sofie muses, “small things worry me less. What people think doesn’t concern me much any more”. The conversations of older women are sometimes astonishing, as we examine who we are now that we have aged in every way.
Sofie & Cecilia is certainly a book women my age, well past what we used to call middle-age, will find not only a pleasure to read, but also thought provoking. Its themes perhaps echo what many of us think about now that we are very definitely well into the second half of life.
I feel very safe in predicting that Sofie & Cecilia will be on all the book club lists this year. It is a book that will be read by women, passed between friends, and lead to conversations about our own lives and who we have become.