[I make no effort to avoid spoilers for a couple of the books discussed below.]
I've long established on this blog my predilection for mushy romance stories of all types, usually in film. But it occurred to me a few months ago that I wasn't exploring the world of mushy romance stories in book form enough, so I figured I'd start with one of the Big Heads of the mushy romance tale working in books today. I figured I'd go with someone whose books have been made into at least several movies and who can be found at nearly any bookstore. Such authors aren't terribly hard to find, so I was able to identify my pigeon fairly quickly.
Hence my recent reading of several books by Nicholas Sparks.
Sparks is...well, I'm not sure what he is. After four of his books, I'm not sure I want to admit to liking him. There's something in each book thus far that's pissed me off for some inexplicable reason, and yet, I've read four of the damn things so far, and I have every intention of reading a few more, at least. He's maddening: Sparks is probably the most manipulative writer I've ever encountered, pulling stunts of chain-pulling and tear-jerking that appall me in their simplicity and yet still end up working to perfection. It's like he just says on page one, "I'm gonna make you cry like a little girl and I'm gonna make you like it." Does it work? Yup. Dammit.
So, which Sparks books have I read thus far? I started with True Believer, in which Our Hero is a writer of scientific articles debunking paranormal claims. He travels to one of the Carolinas (I don't recall which one) to investigate some mysterious lights that appear in the local cemetery. There he meets, and becomes transfixed with, the local librarian, a fetching woman named Lexie. Sparks is pretty good at characterizing beautiful and smart women, it turns out; he makes his ladies seem like people you'd well, find yourself attracted to if you were the type of person to be the lead in a Sparks novel. Or something like that.
The second Sparks book I read was At First Sight, which I borrowed from a friend and discovered a few pages in is actually a direct sequel to True Believer. This one I didn't like so much, mainly because the complications Sparks devises for the couple he introduced us to in the earlier book seem awfully contrived in some cases and downright gratuitous in others. I don't want to give too much away, but there are parts of At First Sight that make me feel as if we could somehow learn what became of all the characters in Casablanca after the final scene, and if it turns out that Victor and Ilsa die in a plain crash on their way to America. Yeah, the book's a bit of a downer. And yet, I did tear up at the end.
Then came Sparks's nonfiction memoir, Three Weeks With My Brother, in which he goes on an around-the-world trip with his brother Micah. He alternates between telling us the tale of the trip and the tale of his upbringing as a kid with Micah and sister Dana. This, too, ends up being pretty depressing stuff as the book goes on. The family was dirt poor for all of Sparks's youth, but hey, they had each other! Finally, though, the kids go off to college and everyone's starting to prosper and finally the parents can afford nice things, including the horses that Mom has always dreamed of owning. And then Mom is thrown from a horse and dies of her injuries. This, as you might expect, plunges Dad Sparks into a terrible depression that lasts years and strains every single one of his relationships to the breaking point. But he's finally moving out of the cloud and re-engaging life when...he's killed in a car accident. And this happens about fifty pages before we learn that Dana's brain tumor is back, and this time it's not going away.
Yeah, if cheerful's your thing, don't read Sparks. He doesn't do cheerful.
Which brings me to the last one I read, The Choice. This is Sparks at his most manipulative. A prologue has Our Hero going to the hospital where his wife works because he hasn't talked to her in several months; he's bringing flowers, in hopes that it will help things. So the scene is set: somehow these two met, fell in love and got married, but now they're separated. Check. On we go. After a long (more than half the book) and, it must be admitted, deftly written courtship that lasts only a few days, Our Hero and Our Heroine fall in love and get married. And then we flash back forward, to find out why they're separated.
Only, they're not separated. Gabby's in a coma from the injuries in a very bad car accident. Hence the book's title, The Choice: will Our Hero pull Gabby's plug, or not?
See what I mean? Shameless manipulation. Crass, even. Sparks should be ashamed.
And yet I lapped it up like a kitten laps up warm milk, and I'll probably read more of this guy's stuff. I see he's got a new book out. Sigh...what on Earth is wrong with me?!
[NOTE: I wrote this post more than a month ago and saved it. Last night I finished reading Sparks's Nights in Rodanthe, which is typical Sparks, all the way. I started asking myself about a third of the way through why certain aspects of the book were being told in past tense, a question which could only have one answer. And when I confirmed that answer, I started blubbering like a baby. I gotta stop reading this guy.
Just as soon as I borrow his latest from a friend.]