Written by: Beth Woodward, CC2K Books Editor
Since I originally wrote this piece about a year and a half ago, Nicholas Sparks fever has only intensified. With two films based on his books out recently, America still seems to be loving his brand of sappy romance. And although I actually really liked The Last Song (the book, not the movie), I still don't think he's gotten anywhere near the heights he reached with The Notebook.
In spite of—or perhaps because of—the fact that I’m a total cynic, I am a sucker for romantic novels. And as such, Nicholas Sparks is one of my guilty pleasures. I first became acquainted with Sparks' novels when I was in college; for me, Sparks’ star-crossed romances set in small North Carolina towns provided an easy escape from the hustle-and-bustle of New York City. They were simple, formulaic novels, always some variation of the boy-meets-girl, boy-loses-girl, boy and/or girl suffers some unspeakable tragedy plotline. They were all fairly predictable, and they were never going to be great novels, but there was something reassuring and comforting about reading them.
And then I read The Notebook…
Although The Notebook was Sparks’ debut novel in 1996, I didn’t read it until a few months before the movie came out in 2004. And I was absolutely floored. Somehow, with a simple frame story—an old man in a nursing home reads the story of a young couple in the 1940s to a woman with Alzheimer’s—The Notebook managed to transcend the level of simple romance. This was the only Sparks novel that genuinely got to me, that resonated to my emotional core. It was a book I read again and again, a book I recommended to all my friends. It showed me something in Sparks’ writing that I didn’t know existed, and I looked forward to reading future Sparks novels to see if he could capture that pure emotional resonance again.
The problem: so far, Sparks’ later novels haven’t come close to The Notebook in either artistry or emotional resonance. I had high hopes for Sparks’ latest novel, The Lucky One, which tells the story of a veteran who believes that the photograph of a young woman he found kept him safe during his three tours of duty in Iraq; after he returns to the United States, he resolves to find the woman. It was a promising premise, but unfortunately it devolves too quickly into bland predictability. Even at the emotional climax, I felt curiously disinterested, as if I had heard the story many times before. And in a sense, I had—in pretty much every other Sparks novel I had ever read.
What gives? I used to enjoy these books, but ever since I read The Notebook I just can’t derive the same pleasure from them. Maybe it's because I keep waiting for Sparks to release something as powerful and poignant as The Notebook…and I keep being disappointed. How can I enjoy those other novels as much, now that I know Sparks is capable of better?
So did Nicholas Sparks peak on his first novel, or is he just in a slump? I honestly don’t know. But I, for one, will keep reading, waiting for the day when Nicholas Sparks will find his voice again.