Review:'The Longest Ride' by Nicholas Sparks
A new weepie from Captain Kleenex...
Bestselling author Nicholas Sparks is not called Captain Kleenex for nothing. His melodramatic tear-jerkers have struck an international chord, selling more than 80 million copies worldwide and inspiring a staggering eight Hollywood films.
He shot to fame in 1996 with The Notebook, the soppy story of an elderly man who read from a notebook to a mysterious woman in a nursing home every day. It spent over two years on the New York Times bestsellers list and went on to inspire a movie (with Gena Rowlands, James Garner, Rachel McAdams and Ryan Gosling) so sentimental it would make your toes curl.
But Sparks clearly had a winning formula and went on to write a romantic bestseller every year. His books – with their big themes of love, tragedy and the cruelty of fate – made ideal movie fodder, and several, like Message in a Bottle (starring Kevin Costner and Robin Wright) and The Lucky One (starring Zac Efron and Taylor Schilling) have become classic weepies.
Now he is back with The Longest Ride, his first book in two years, and, surprise, surprise, it is already being adapted by Fox with a release date in cinemas of Valentine's Day 2015.
The significant date will give you some inkling of what is going to follow. The Longest Ride is, of course, a love story or, more precisely, two intertwining ones, and when the book opens with 91-year-old Ira Levinson struggling to stay conscious after his car has careened off the road, you can already imagine it as the poignant opening frame of a Hollywood blockbuster.
Ira's late wife Ruth appears in the car and starts to talk to him. Whether it's a trick of Ira's mind or something miraculous doesn't really matter; what follows is a poignant retelling of the couple's life together, encompassing a cultural and historical sweep that takes in the horrors of World War II, life for immigrants in 1950s America and – this is a Sparks novel, after all – the power of love.
It would be easy to scoff at the blatant mawkishness of it all but Sparks has a way of appealing to the reader in the same way a catchy (but uncool) song on the radio will have you singing along in no time. He has a canny knack of tapping into what makes us human, and before you know it, you are rooting for Ira and engrossed in his life story.
Meanwhile, just a few miles away from Ira's car wreck, sophisticated college student Sophia Danko is nursing a broken heart when she meets country boy bull-rider Luke fresh after a rodeo victory in North Carolina. They have nothing in common but not long afterwards, the unlikely couple are sitting on porch rockers on Luke's ranch, trying to bridge the gap between their worlds.
Luke's rodeo adventures and ranch life seem too wholesome to be true but there is a dark secret lurking in the background.
As for Sophia, her portrayal of college life is predictable enough, with tales of jealously, friendship and petty rivalries. Though, there is one very disturbing remark about 'the antics' – as they are described – in sorority house. Over dinner, she tells Luke and his mother that the plumbing had to be replaced because so many girls were bulimic they had corroded the pipes. Antics, indeed.
The book rattles along at a gushing pace, fleshing out each of the couple's lives. And, of course, their lives converge with an unexpected poignancy, reminding us all that even the most difficult decisions can yield extraordinary journeys: beyond despair, beyond death, to the farthest reaches of the human heart, as the blurb puts it.
Ira stays alive by remembering Ruth and how, against the odds, she went on to build up an extensive collection of modern art. He recalls the letters he wrote to her on every anniversary, telling her how much she meant to him. It is sweet and is rescued from being sickly by Ira's matter-of-fact delivery.
It is interesting that Sparks himself said in an interview that he wrote his wife Cathy 150 love letters while pursuing her and still writes a love letter every year on their anniversary. Little wonder then that Ira's words ring true.
At 398 pages, The Longest Ride is a hefty tome, but in the hands of this master storyteller it has a lightness of touch. Is it sentimental? Absolutely. Then, Sparks himself describes his work as 'dramatic fiction'. Is it predictable? Without a doubt. Are you too cool to read it or see the movie? Of course you are, but you probably will anyway.
And when you do, don't forget to bring the Kleenex.
The Longest Ride