The Longest Ride, by Nicholas Sparks (Grand Central Publishing, 398 pages)
Looking at the collected works of Nicholas Sparks, the word “prefabricated” leaps and lingers atop the stack of applicable adjectives.
Not only do Sparks’ novels follow a predictable trajectory, but they even manage to look the same. The formula: a painting of something winsome — an old barn, a pot of flowers, a dog in a field — stamped with a square featuring the title and, much larger, the author’s name. Side by side on Sparks’ website, the books look as though they were spit from some far-away assembly line manned by Oompa Loompas or elves.
That eight of Sparks’ novels have been spun out of Hollywood, like so much cotton candy, does nothing to assure their worth, nor does the fact that the author and his wife have spent some of their wealth to establish a foundation that bears his name. Far more impressive is the homeless guy in Boston who turned in a backpack containing $40,000 recently.
But OK. If only out of curiosity, a guy who’s written 16 books, many of them bestsellers, deserves a look. Sparks’ latest is The Longest Ride, and yes, it’s coming to a theater near you. Although the book was not released until September, Fox 2000 bought the film rights back in February. This was predictable, as is much of the book’s plot. In the right hands, foreshadowing is a tool to heighten tension; on a literary assembly line, it functions as a sleeping aid. By the end of the second chapter, the reader can predict the ending, a motivational problem since 358 pages remain.
What we have here is the oft-used format of two unrelated stories that eventually collide. The first is that of Ira Levinson, “a southerner and a Jew … equally proud to have been called both at one time or another.” Ira is 91 and still missing the love of his life, Ruth, who died nine years ago. They’d been married for 55 years.
As the book opens, Ira’s more immediate problem is that he lost control of his car on an icy road and plunged through a guard rail and down an embankment, where he is immobilized with broken bones in a snowstorm. Ira has two sandwiches, a thermos of coffee and a bottle of water, but can’t reach any of them in the crushed car in which he is imprisoned. He and Ruth had no children, and there is no one to report him missing. As the cold and hunger encroaches, he wonders how he can wriggle to the backseat where he can die prone, “like a fish stick.”
“The last thing I want is for someone to find me out here, frozen solid in a sitting position like some bizarre ice sculpture,” Ira thinks.
Well, OK, the fish stick thing is funny, and the sentences are unexpectedly coherent. When Ira starts seeing his beloved Ruth beside him, in the passenger seat, the couple reminisce about their lives together, and the dialogue is genuine, believable and, at times, touching. A deft and workmanlike writer, Sparks knows to get out of his characters’ way, to let them talk without interruption. The writing is fluid, the construction seamless.
When the parallel story is introduced, it doesn’t seem jarring, even though it begins four months earlier and involves lovers of another generation.
Sophia is a student at Wake Forest University, recovering from a breakup with her boyfriend of two years. When the ex follows her to a rodeo and some roughness ensues, Sophia is rescued by a ridiculously photogenic cowboy named Luke. It is at this point that the eye-rolling commences.
How many times have we encountered a scene like this, in which a bad guy is accosted by a good guy who says, nicely but firmly, “You need to let her go” and “I don’t want to hurt you. But I will.”
Predictably, Sophia and Luke ride off together, and the handsome-yet-sensitive bull rider and the beautiful-yet-brainy art-history major teach each other many things about life, love and the damage an irate 2,000-pound bull can do to a human skull. As in the story of Ira and Ruth, there are numerous challenges to the pair’s ultimate happiness, including the threatened loss of Luke’s family’s farm. But the story bucks ever so gently, and never gets nearly as interesting as Luke’s nemesis, a pale bull named Big Ugly Critter. (For 27 U.S. dollars, can’t we at least get some better names for the animals in this story? Besides Big Ugly Critter, we are introduced to a Horse named Horse and a dog named Dog, leaving the sense that Sparks was in way too big a hurry to get back to his foundation.)
No spoilers here — no need for them. The stories converge, life bites, and love wins. But there are a few small surprises, not the least of which that the story, while predictable, can still elicit a tear. It is a formulaic novel draped in gauzy sentimentality, but the penalties offset, and yes, it will probably make a decent movie. No National Book Award, but it’s cream floating atop the milky romance/chick lit genre. C+