Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Nights in Rodanthe

This book wasn't worth the time it took to read it, the time it's about to take me to review it, or probably the few minutes it will take you to read this review. And if Nights in Rodanthe hadn't made Nicholas Sparks a barrel-full of money by becoming a bestseller and a movie, I'd feel a little sorry for him for having taken the time to write it.

Actually, I still feel a little sorry for him, as I would for any other sub-normal developmentally disabled protozoan. As this is an equal opportunity review website, however, with authorial human chromosomes and/or compos mentis not required, let us soldier on.

Nights in Rodanthe is the love story of Adrienne and Paul, two generically wounded middle-aged divorcés with lives as thrilling and fresh as two rotten cabbages cradled in the arms of a dentist from Toledo.

Her wounds:

It hadn't helped, after all. She was busy from the moment she woke until the moment she went to bed, and because she'd robbed herself of any possibility of rewards, there was nothing to look forward to. Her daily routine was a series of chores, and that was enough to wear anyone down. By giving up the little things that make life worthwhile, all she'd done, she suddenly realized, was to forget who she really was. (126)*

To translate this load of pop-psychological garbage into normal English, Adrienne got married, had three kids, and didn't have time to take long relaxing baths and gaze endlessly into her navel any more. Well, welcome to the fucking human race.

His wounds:

At one time, he had thought he had it all. He'd run and run, he'd reached the pinnacle of success; yet now, he realized he'd never taken his father's advice. All his life, he'd been running away from something, not toward something, and in his heart, he knew it had all been in vain. (31)

This is doubly meaningful because Paul's been figuratively running and he's also a literal cross-country runner. Deep, man, like the bottom of my septic tank. Also, his father was a simple country man with simple country ambitions, and is dead when the novel starts. Awwww. Are you crying yet? Well, you didn't pay for the book, so I guess probably not.

Anyhoo, these two walking tear-jerks meet up at a bed and breakfast where he's the only guest and she's managing it while the proprietor goes on vacation. They have a passionate weekend affair while a hurricane rages outside (the force of the howling wind and pounding waves, you see, is supposed to metaphorically echo the violence of the reader's projectile spew), and then they lovingly part. They plan to meet up a year later when he gets back from Ecuador, where he's on his way to reunite with his estranged adult son.

The novel opens a few years after this, and the whole story of their dalliance is told in a flashback** as Adrienne relates it to her daughter, who is grieving the untimely loss of her young husband to cancer. Since only someone with the mental capacity of Nicholas Sparks would have a moment's doubt about the twist ending after reading six pages, let's just throw it out there: Paul dies in Ecuador -- while saving his son's life, natch -- after spending a few months writing endless, endlessly whiny letters to Adrienne. I presume that he figured out he was the hero of a Nicholas Sparks novel, realized that his days were numbered, and wrote the letters so that she would have something to remember him by after his inevitable tear-jerky death. Either that, or the editors of Seventeen rejected them from their letters page on the basis that they were too girly, and Sparks had to get them published somewhere else.

Adrienne then uses these letters and the story of her loss to comfort her daughter and show her that true strength comes from love, you have to have strength and love for your children's sake, loving your children gives you strength, or strong children are more lovable, or something something along those sickening lines.

You may have gathered that I found the content of Nights in Rodanthe just a little on the saccharine, wimpy side. But execution is everything. After all, Anne Rice's vampires are just as bitchy and emo as Stephenie Meyer's, but Rice's books are entertaining -- so it's just vaguely possible that in the hands of a decent writer, Nights in Rodanthe could have been more than the waste of perfectly good wood pulp*** it turned out to be.

Unfortunately, I had three major issues with the writing in this book: the dialogue, the sections of summarized dialogue, and the remainder.

Since there's so much damn talking in this book, the first two issues were impossible to overlook. When you get to passages like this:

     "You okay?"
     "I don't know," he said. "I'm kind of numb right now."
     "That's not surprising. It was a lot to absorb."
     "Yes," Paul said. "It was."
     "Are you glad you came? And that he told you those things?"
     "Yes and no. It was important to him that I know who she was, so I'm glad for that. But it makes me sad, too. They loved each other so much, and now she's gone."
     "It doesn't seem fair." (151-152)****

Or this:

     "That's a tough one," she admitted.
     "I know."
     "But this isn't all your fault, you know. It takes two people to keep a feud going."
     "That's pretty philosophical."
     "It's still true, though."
     "What should I do?" (131)

It makes you long for Sparks to paraphrase something, anything, and spare you just a few lines of unbearably inane and tedious clichés. And then you get your wish:

The words stung. They had an argument. Mark made bitter accusations, Paul grew furious, and Mark ended up storming out of the restaurant. Paul refused to talk to him for the next couple of weeks, and Mark made no attempt to make amends. Weeks turned into months, then into years. (28)

Well, look at that! Just what I ordered: unbearably inane and tedious clichés, hold the quotation marks.

Not that the clichés stop when the dialogue does. Sparks likes to show off his originality and command of the English language at all times:

In her brief absence the sky had grown darker, and the wind cut past her as she stepped out of the car. It had begun to whistle as it moved around the Inn, sounding almost ghostlike, a spectral flute playing a single note. (117-118)

Just in case the readers don't know what the word "spectral" means, we get a handy synonym, too. Thanks, Nicholas Sparks. I'm not quite sure how you managed to both condescend to your audience and insult our intelligence at the same time, but I surely appreciate it. At least the simile/metaphor repetition above has a clear meaning, though:

Outside, the moon was rising, hard and brilliant, making the sand glow with the color of antique pots and pans. (173)

So the sand's the color of cast iron? No, wait, maybe copper? But considering the usual color of moonlight, maybe he meant pewter? Although I didn't think pewter was used for pots and pans, and aluminum wasn't used in "antique" pans. Perhaps Sparks should have included an appendix listing the typical materials used to make cooking vessels before the twentieth century.

Although the descriptions and dialogue are bad enough, they're only about a third of the book. The rest takes place inside our two protagonists' heads, and two drearier, duller, whinier locations would be hard to find. Blah blah blah, she thought. I wasted my life, she realized. Why did I do that, he wondered. Well, the past is the past, she mused. Sparks doesn't seem to get that third-person limited POV is the standard in most fiction. We don't need to be mused at in order to get that we are looking at the world from Adrienne's perspective. I get it, I thought. I understand, I mused. Why did I read this book, I wondered.

But since I did commit that grievous error, I should at least attempt to profit by it. So allow me to summarize what I have learned from reading this book, so that you, my dear readers, can profit in your turn.

Lesson #1: Nicholas Sparks is a sensitive guy who understands the inner workings of the human heart and can express them in clear, poetic language:

But there was something about Adrienne that made him feel she would understand what he was going through. He couldn't explain why he felt that way or why it mattered. But either way, he was sure of it. (65)

Lesson #2: Nicholas Sparks is a sensitive guy who understands what women want:

Not only had Paul held her for hours afterward, but his tender embrace let her know that this was just as meaningful to him as the physical intimacy they'd shared. He kissed her hair and face, and every time he caressed a part of her body, he called her beautiful and told her that he adored her in the solemn, sure way she had so quickly come to love. (141)

Ladies, try to imagine a man doing this with you. [Kisses cheek] "I adore you" [Kisses arm] "You are beautiful" [Touches leg] "I adore you" [Touches hair] "You are beautiful" Now tell me if that creeps you out. Gentlemen, try to imagine doing that. Yeah. Awkward.

Lesson #3: Nicholas Sparks is a sensitive guy who understands that all of humanity is one gentle, tender, throbbing heap of sensitivity just waiting to put down their machetes and come together and love one another, right now:

Adrienne sometimes wondered when Amanda would realize that for the most part, people weren't all that different. Young and old, male or female, pretty much everyone she knew wanted the same things: They wanted to feel peace in their hearts, they wanted a life without turmoil, they wanted to be happy. (164)

I encourage any readers who'd like to hear more about Sparks's philosophy to check out this talk he gave recently about his oeuvre:

Nights in Rodanthe gets a full star: one half for containing words, and the other half for being printed on paper.

* Page numbers are from this edition.

** There are also, as one might expect in a tour de force of this caliber, flashbacks within flashbacks scattered throughout. These are supposed to metaphorically echo the taste of the reader's previous meal, which is constantly present during the reading process.

*** They could have given that pulp a nobler destiny. Do you know where I'm going with this? I bet you do.

**** Hey! Hey guys! I'm Nicholas Sparks, and I'm an author, and I know what foreshadowing is! See? Look at me, mom!

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