Die-hard Nicholas Sparks fans like myself will not be disappointed in this latest novel from the popular North Carolina writer. Set in the area around Greensboro and Winston-Salem, this book tells two parallel and independent stories, which only come together in a surprising way very near the end.
One story is the life review of 91-year-old widower Ira Levinson, whose car has gone off the road pinning him inside while a snowstorm outside threatens to obscure his car from any possible rescue. As he sits injured but conscious for two days, he hallucinates the presence of his beloved deceased wife in the seat next to him helping him to review their long life together.
Through his conversations with her we learn about his long and somewhat ordinary but nonetheless fascinating life. Wife Ruth who “visits” him in the car during these days is sometimes one age, sometimes another, as appropriate for helping him review and find closure for different periods of his life.
Ira worked in the family store and Ruth was an elementary school teacher and amateur art collector. They led fairly ordinary lives but ones that are totally riveting in Sparks’ deft storytelling hands, much as he showed us in his first novel “The Notebook.”
The second story concerns Wake Forest University senior Sophia Danko, a working class child of New Jersey immigrants. On an outing with friends to a bullriding competition in a nearby rural town, Sophia is rescued from a threatening encounter with a stalking ex-boyfriend by the evening’s local bullriding champion Luke Collins. He and Sophia hit it off and eventually fall in love, completely defying both of their expectations of the kind of person they would be attracted to. The courtship is not all roses, however, as Luke has some secrets of his own that almost destroy this relationship. How he works through these issues is fascinating.
Sparks is well known for several previous novels, mostly set in coastal North Carolina where he lives. He intentionally chooses to call these “love stories” rather than “romances.” Several have been made into popular movies, including “The Notebook,” “Message in a Bottle,” “Nights in Rodanthe,” “A Walk to Remember,” “The Last Song,” “The Lucky One,” and most recently, “Safe Haven.” All are love stories in one form or another but, interestingly enough, the lovers represent a wide age range, from teenagers to 91-year-old Ira Levinson in “The Longest Ride.”
Regular Sparks readers also know that at least one major character dies in every one of his novels, and it is not always the one you expect.
As a male reader well aware that a majority of Sparks’ audience is female, I am continually impressed that Sparks is one of the few writers who really understands and communicates the emotional life of men. Many writers, mostly women—such gifted authors as Maeve Binchy, Barbara Delinsky or even Jane Austen come to mind— brilliantly capture the emotional life of women, but very few so successfully get into the heads of male characters at the same level of feeling.
To some readers, Sparks’ men may seem overly introspective and even whiny but I find them totally realistic and think that dismissal an unfair criticism. It is so refreshing to get to know male literary characters more driven by their inner life than by the macho trappings of action and conquest so often the rule in both novels and film.
In “The Longest Ride” it is particularly interesting that even Luke, a “cowboy” of sorts who does physical work for a living and bullriding for fun, has a fascinating inner life that only Nicholas Sparks could understand and relate so well.
Some might argue that the end of “The Longest Ride,” while a total surprise, is highly improbable and unsatisfying. Improbable, yes, but not impossible, and it actually grows organically out of the unusual but well-motivated choices a character had previously made. Part of the reason it is such a surprise is that other conclusions are strongly hinted at but do not in fact come to pass. Some of Sparks’ books have happy endings but many do not. You will have to read this one yourself to discover which category it belongs in.
In the end, what makes a successful novel is that you care about the characters and don’t want to put the book down until you find out what happens to them. In this regard “The Longest Ride” does not disappoint. In fact, it leaves me very eager to see the movie and read his next book.
Richard Harris is a professor of psychology at Kansas State University.