Books: Love, loss and a bright imagination
Fiction: See Me, Nicholas Sparks, Little Brown, hbk, 476 pages, €11.89
His critics often dismiss his books as syrupy tear-jerkers and it's true that his 17-and-counting novels all follow a predictable formula of love, tragedy and loss.
In a typical Nicholas Sparks novel, two good-looking young people meet, overcome difficult obstacles to fall in love and then tragedy when leukaemia or Alzheimer's or some such disease strikes. But it's a formula that has helped the former pharmaceutical salesman from Omaha, Nebraska, sell around 100 million books that have been translated into some 40 languages; he's topped the New York Times bestseller list with a dozen titles.
Sparks is more than just a bestselling author of romantic fiction though, he's a pop culture phenomenon. The Notebook, a tale of love lost and found, loosely based on the story of his grandparents, was a massive success, making the New York Times bestseller list in its first week and becoming a hit movie starring Ryan Gosling and Rachel McAdams. However, the martial-arts-practising Sparks refuses to accept any description of his love stories as romance. "I don't write romance novels," he has said. "Love stories - it's a very different genre. I would be rejected if I submitted any of my novels as romance novels."
Of A Walk to Remember, he said in 2002: "It's not a romance novel. This is not a dreamy fantasy. It is about real love on a number of levels." Quite.
In his latest offering, Colin Hancock is the typical Sparks' hero. He's stoic, a man of few words who has a latent capacity for violence. He looks best in very tight T-shirts. Colin has been given a second chance at life after a troubled past of anger-management issues and violence. He's currently on probation so Colin flings himself into his teaching degree and tries to avoid the triggers like alcohol that spoiled his earlier life. Our manly, cage-fighting protagonist isn't looking for love.
Then one night he bumps into Maria Sanchez on a bleak, windswept road. And again, she's a typical Sparks' heroine. She's gorgeous but humble, and unlucky in love, the hard-working daughter of Mexican immigrants. Her life has been textbook perfect. She has a degree from Duke Law School and a job at a prestigious law firm in Wilmington, but Maria is also unable to forget a case she worked on years ago. This provides the trauma and eventual conflict that will keep Sparks' characters apart temporarily, despite their instant attraction and evident compatibility.
The writing is lush, the sentiments uncomplicated. But the joy of his work is its utter predictability, that little ker-ching in your heart when the expected kiss lands, the reunion happens, the lost love reignites. You can see where this is going, mostly, although fans of Nicholas Sparks will know that his tales are never complete without a wholly unpredictable twist right at the end. Naturally that's here, too.
You can sneer, but I don't care - the heart wants what it will, and my heart sometimes wants Sparks, corny as hell but with old-fashioned charm that gradually warms the cockles and moistens the eyes. You always know where you are with Nicholas Sparks, and it's a place I'm always happy to while away a couple of hours. Here's another compelling sob story that Hollywood won't be able to resist.