I can't remember the last time a book depressed me as much as this one did. Not because it's a three-hanky weeper with a sad ending (although it is), but because I really, really disliked it. Normally that would be all well and good, but I kept running into people who told me they loved it dearly. People who thought it was sweet, romantic, and sad, which is just what the author tells you it will be. Many of them were people I liked. Usually I like to think of myself as a "read and let read" kind of person, or an "anything that gets people reading is terrific" person. After all, as a long-time romance reviewer I am pretty used to acquaintances sneering at my choice of reading material. But I thought this book was so awful that the thought of people liking it - people who would think nothing of sneering at a "real" romance - depressed me.
Sparks tells the reader up front: "First you will smile, and then you will cry - don't say you haven't been warned." At that point I could tell up front that I would be doing neither. If an author has to tell you how you will be reacting to his book, he's not doing his job in the first place. But I digress. After we are told we will be smiling and crying, we are introduced to the teenage narrarator, Landon. Landon's father is a North Carolina congressman who is usually in Washington, and Landon likes to act tough by eating peanuts in the local graveyard. But his life changes forever when he gets involved with Jamie. He first comes into contact with her when he asks her to the Homecoming dance (all the cuter, more popular girls are taken). Then they take the same drama class. The seniors perform a traditional play every year written by a local reverend, Jamie's father. It's a loosely autobiographical piece that features a young man visited by an angel while he is looking for a gift for his daughter. Landon plays the young man, opposite Jamie, the reverend's daughter. Jamie is perfect: She picks up injured animals and takes them to the vet. She never says an unkind word about anyone. She literally carries her bible with her everywhere. She sets out change jars all over town so that the orphans can have Christmas presents. Naturally, the orphans all know her by name because she visits that orphanage all the time. Do you know anyone this perfect? Me neither. Anyway, we are all supposed to relate to Landon the imperfect.
You can probably guess where this is going. If you can't guess, no need to worry, because Nicholas Sparks spells everything out. Landon is a little immature (what with the peanut eating in the graveyard and all), but he is shown the ways of goodness and light and forever changed by his relationship with Jamie the perfect. Eventually, he falls in love with her, and then something sad happens.
The basic premise is not unlike many roamnces. Boy needs taming of sorts, boy meets an attractive girl, boy is tamed. But what a difference a writing style makes. This particular book is written in a style that is supposed to be folksy but comes off as just stupid. It's written in the first person, all the better to showcase Landon's excessive use of the terms "by the way" and "if you know what I mean." His thoughts are neither interesting nor believable, though, to be fair, he's more believable than St. Jamie.
If by some chance you don't quite understand every little thought Landon has, they are conveniently explained for you. I was a little discouraged when Sparks felt the need to explain the origin of the term "Et tu, Brute?," but it was even worse when he explained why actors say "break a leg." I tried to imagine what adult would not know this already. Then I tried to imagine a teenager not knowing. Experimentally, I asked my 11-year-old daughter if she knew. She did. But just in case you don't, Nicholas Sparks has your back. There are few things more insulting to a reader than heavy-handed, obvious writing. Sparks is master of the obvious, carefully tipping off the reader to future plot points, painstakingly pointing out every character's emotion. Clearly, he's never heard of the old adage, "show, don't tell."
If there's anything worse than the heavy-handed writing, it's probably the excessive, gooey schmaltz. You can almost feel it dripping off the pages, or rising from the streets of the aw-shucks-mister Southern town. I thought it had peaked when Jamie and Landon visited the orphanage at Christmastime (God bless us, everyone!), but I discovered I was wrong when I reached the ending, the ending that was supposed to make me cry.
I guess I felt like crying all right - for all the wrongs reasons. I wanted to cry because the book was so awful, and I wanted to cry because I knew people who liked it. This depressing notion was all I could think about for two days, until I decided I needed to get over my grief...and then acceptance set in. I've more or less accepted the fact that Sparks has millions of fans propelling his books onto the best seller list, but I don't have to like it. Presumably, millions of people read Sparks' books because they want a sweet, romantic read. I wish I could give them all a decent romance, something by Mary Jo Putney or Lisa Kleypas. Heck, even Johanna Lindsay would be a big step up. When I vented to my colleagues, Ellen replied, "From what I gather, he is as nice a guy as ever lived, and I don't begrudge him his success, but he is sloppily sentimental, and can get away with it because he's a man." Truer words were never spoken. On the off chance that a well-meaning soul tries to interest you in this book, politely decline. Then tell yourself how lucky you are to know where to find a "real" romance.
-- Blythe Barnhill
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