There are two schools of thought when it comes to Nicholas Sparks.
You either love his work, or you’d be ecstatic if he never wrote another word. There’s no in between. I thought I knew which side of the fence I was on, but now, not so much.
I have read all of Sparks’s 17 novels but would be hard pressed to tell you exactly what any one of them is about — except his most recent, “The Longest Ride.” But they all go something like this: A woman — or sometimes a guy — with something to hide meets a romantic counterpart who helps her overcome her past so the pair can live happily ever after. Someone else gets sick, maybe even dies, but that somehow makes things even better for the couple.
THE LONGEST RIDE
This book is no exception. Set in North Carolina, “The Longest Ride’’ weaves together two love stories. The first is that of 91-year-old Ira Levinson and his wife, Ruth. We meet Ira, who is severely injured and trapped in his car after it careens over a guardrail and lands at the bottom of an embankment.
In his delirium, Ira sees his beloved Ruth, who passed on some nine years earlier. As he struggles to stay alive, Ira listens to Ruth talk to him about the many, mostly wonderful years they spent together.
The other story revolves around the budding romance of Sophia Danko, a Wake Forest University art history major, and Luke Collins, rancher and champion bull rider. But Luke has a secret that could spell the end of their relationship — and his life.
Ultimately, the two love stories intertwine — in an ending I didn’t see coming — with Luke and Sophia blissfully riding off into the sunset, aided by the ill-fated Ira. I admit it, I got a little weepy.
Formulaic? Of course. But it doesn’t really matter to me because by the time he releases a new book, I’ve somehow already forgotten everything about the previous one.
Readers don’t turn to Sparks’s books because he writes great literature. He’s not Ernest Hemingway, after all — although in a 2010 interview in USA Today, he said he writes “good stuff” like Hemingway.
Sparks’s novels serve as a diversion. He can always be counted on to conjure up the twists and turns of a captivating story — formulaic or not — and wrap them up neatly with a surprise ending.
In a recent interview about “The Longest Ride” with the New York Daily News, Sparks said, “The inspiration for this novel really came from its ending . . . I knew where they would be, what would happen, what the big twist was, how that would unwind, and how I wanted the reader to feel at the very end of the novel.”
That ending sparked a small kerfuffle online. In an Amazon review of the book, one reader noted that the ending first appeared as “Who’ll Take the Son,” a Christian parable that can easily be found all over the Internet, although its origin and author appear uncertain.
“I’m so disappointed,” the reader wrote. “As I got closer to the end of the book, I became aware of how well I already knew this story, but I kept hoping against hope that I was wrong. But unfortunately, it was not to be the case. While the stories of Ira & Ruth and Luke & Sophia were engaging and heartwarming, it was completely ruined for me by the [borrowed] ending.”
The reader said despite that, she’s not giving up on Sparks.
“I just hope he gets enough backlash from faithful readers to know that we’re intelligent people and he shouldn’t give us less than his best from his heart and mind,” she said.
Writers always borrow from great literature. Ever read “Love Story” by Erich Segal? That story line was cribbed from “Romeo and Juliet” — and scholars believe Shakespeare took it from another source. Writers constantly borrow, and other writers borrow from them.
But is it any different if the source of a tale is obscure like “Who’ll Take the Son”? In any given time we’re surrounded by stories we’ve read and heard. Sometimes we know the source; sometimes we don’t. But even if an author doesn’t intend to borrow from another source and claim it as his own, readers like the Amazon reviewer who discover that fact feel duped.
As for me, I think from now on I’m going to stick with Hemingway.
Linda Rosencrance is a freelance writer/editor in the Boston area.