The Flowers of Romance

There are a few ironclad rules in any world created by Nicholas Sparks. If you’re a man, you have square shoulders and muscles that reflect your belief in a hard day’s work. If you’re a woman, you have striking emerald eyes and blond hair, or hazel eyes to offset your high cheekbones. If you own a farm, a harmonica-playing black man full of hard-earned wisdom lives next door. If you’re Mexican, your parents own a restaurant and struggled to give you a better life. If you’re a warehouse, you’re located in a run-down neighborhood on the outskirts of town. If you’re a thunderstorm, you roll up just as a woman with striking eyes and a man with square shoulders are about to kiss for the first time.

But if you are one of the two main characters in a Nicholas Sparks novel, you are lucky indeed, and perfect in almost every way. If you have children, you raise them to be honest, kind, and self-sufficient. If you have a job, you rise to the top quickly and soon you’re running the whole operation. If you work ninety hours a week, you show no signs of fatigue. If you’re sent away to the war, you’re never far from the action. If you’re a painter, your paintings are eventually displayed in museums around the world. If you’re poor, you still always have enough to eat and a warm room to sleep in. If you’re pretty, you don’t realize it. If you’re older, you don’t regret it. If you’re not nostalgic, that’s because there’s no reason to make your memories any more romantic than they already are. If you have a father, he taught you everything that matters.

That doesn’t mean there aren’t tough times. Sometimes, part of you wishes you hadn’t come here. You can see that the weather isn’t going to cooperate. You realize that you are tired of the life you’ve been living. You’ve barely touched your first glass of wine. And when you sit down pretty much anywhere, you wonder about the turn of events that brought you to this point.

But then love comes along! He seems so different from other men, or it dawns on you that you’ve spent your entire life searching for her. You can feel a restrained strength in his grip, or, as you pull her close, you realize you’ve wanted her in your arms just like this, forever. In the morning, you have no regrets. She is the only woman you’ll ever love. You know you will never fall in love again, but you’re not bitter. He is and always has been your dream. You both have angels on your shoulders. He will always mean everything to you. You are the luckiest man alive.

These are the seductively predictable rhythms of life in Sparks’s romantic universe. All eighteen of his novels are best sellers; eleven of them have been translated to the big screen. Sparks has continually served up exactly what Americans seem to crave: stories populated by perfect people who are never haunted by lingering questions or long-held doubts. All ambivalence is temporary, and by the end, the answers are crystal clear. Hard work gets results. Goodness is recognized. Beauty is magical. Love fixes everything.

Sparks’s latest novel, See Me (Grand Central, $27), is a romantic suspense-thriller set on the North Carolina coast. It features the usual gorgeous-but-down-to-earth heroine, Maria, who finds herself falling for Colin, a rakishly handsome hero with a bad-boy past and a penchant for mixed martial arts. That comes in handy when our heroine is stalked by a menacing stranger, but not until Maria and Colin spend about two hundred pages just wandering around, getting to know each other, in long, drawn-out conversations with all the charm and flair of lengthy interoffice memos. Once the relevant information has been exchanged and the new couple is finally ready to face a mysterious threat together, that threat unfolds over 280 pages with few twists and very little urgency.

While the repetitive banalities of See Me might make a few Sparks fans long for his concise whirlwind romances of old, the same optimistic, salt-of-the-earth ambience is on full display here. Against the backdrop of an increasingly unpredictable global scene, Sparks’s worldview feels almost like a religion: Maximize sentimentality, minimize complexity. Here is the short answer. Here is the simple solution. Here is my latest four-hundred-page-long Chevy-truck ad, as safe and clean as the “New Orleans” section of Disneyland, as cozy as a padded cell.

And yet, who doesn’t love a workingman who is also a poet? Who wouldn’t adore a world-famous painter who moves with the poise of a dancer, or a bartender with a troubled past who just wants to keep his head down and stay in school? Doesn’t everyone alive want to get caught in a rainstorm, then cuddle by the fire under a patchwork quilt sewn together from millions of clichés? Don’t we all want to know in our hearts that everything happens for a reason and things work out just how they’re supposed to and it’s really better this way, always and forever, no matter what?

Movie posters for six films based on Nicholas Sparks books.
Movie posters for six films based on Nicholas Sparks books.

Thus do we read from the world according to Sparks, which foretells the future: All your dreams will come true, and then they’ll be dashed, and then they’ll come true again, and then everything will slip out of your fingers but you’ll treasure every second of it without a single regret, because life is short and all good things come to an end eventually and all you can do is be grateful for what you have, forever and ever, amen.

Young neurotics are sometimes haunted by the recurring impression that dumb people are much happier than they are. Sparks’s oeuvre seems to suggest that this fabled shadow world of earnest, satisfied simpletons is real. All you need to do to be contented is power down the gears of your useless, overworked brain, the author tells us. Go make some tea and sit on the porch and marvel at the turn of events that brought us to this point, already! Sparks’s strange set of neurosis-rehab prescriptions represents the mental and emotional inverse of texts by Philip Roth and David Foster Wallace and Lorrie Moore. Instead of fixating on some melancholy image that embodies the fruitlessness of every human effort, instead of questioning the possibility of honesty between a man and a woman, you emerge from each of Sparks’s tomes asking yourself, “Why spin my wheels when I could simply believe in the love of a good woman? Why turn the screw on this draining family-of-origin trauma when I could feel grateful for how my children turned out and savor the balance of my days on Earth? Why question the exact timing of this thunderstorm, when I could be enraptured by the soft feel of her lips or the shirt that can barely contain his bulging muscles?”

As easy as it is to wave off Sparks as a primitive high-capitalist magician who knows just how to manipulate our emotions with his sweeping Judeo-Christian sentiments—a kind of grandiose J. R. R. Tolkien of middle-class-American values—his rustic craftsmanship is still worth marveling over. Who knew that you could limit yourself to flat characters, clichéd emotions, and predictable outcomes and still keep the reader’s attention from start to finish? Sparks is like a Lego Master Builder who can re-create a Frank Gehry building using only primary-colored plastic blocks.

Whether working within the haiku-like constraints of The Notebook or stretching out into the monotonous sprawl of See Me, Sparks never pushes the envelope beyond familiar concepts and sentiments. He never dips a toe into filth, remorse, or resentment. No one wanders off the beaten path and gets lost for good. No one questions her mother’s judgment or asks if his father really did teach him the entire sum of worthwhile knowledge on the face of the planet. No one ruins a holiday meal with a passive-aggressive display of impatience. No one says the wrong thing without apologizing afterward. No one kicks an empty can and whines about how no-fair life can be sometimes.

It’s strange how literary and commercial works continue to adhere stubbornly to two opposite poles: poetically expressed skepticism versus clumsy, cliché-driven optimism. If our next great American novelist injected Sparks-style earnestness and stubbornly upbeat resolutions into the next great American novel, would we recognize that novel’s greatness? Or would we damn the author to some midlist nowhereland devoid of book prizes, some pulpy beach-read bin embossed with movie stills of Jennifer Aniston and Bradley Cooper and the words “Now a major motion picture”?

But let’s not kid ourselves about the literary value of 482 pages of small talk interspersed with well-worn folksy truisms about how everything is exactly as it should be. At a time when popularity is taken not just as a signifier of value but as the exact same thing as value, it is necessary and worthwhile to absorb just how bad the really bad books manage to get away with being while still selling millions of copies internationally.

Because, no matter what Nicholas Sparks might tell you, sometimes sloppy work gets results, and sometimes badness is recognized while goodness is ignored. Comfort can’t always be found in the steady routines of life. If you’re a boy, you don’t always take all your aggression out on the athletic field, and if you’re a woman, you’re not always completely satisfied with how your children turned out. And maybe your father didn’t teach you everything that matters. Maybe your father was pretty damn mixed up about what matters, in fact. Maybe you are not the luckiest man alive. Maybe you have a lot more left to learn.

Heather Havrilesky is the author of the memoir Disaster Preparedness (Riverhead, 2010).