The Longest Ride by Nicholas Sparks

17407748Fiction – print. Grand Central Publishing, 2013. Originally published 2012. 398 pgs. Purchased.

Cajoled into going out by her roommate and sorority sisters, Sophia Danko finds herself cornered at a rodeo by her ex-boyfriend. Sophia isn’t interested in talking to him, but her ex won’t take no for an answer – until a cowboy named Luke interrupts their one-sided conversation.

The chance meeting leads to Sophia spending less time on campus at Wake Forest College and more time around the ranch Luke’s family has owned for years. As the two begin to fall in love, Sophia’s roommate tries to remind Sophia that the two of them have very different ideas about their future. Sophia, an art history major, wants to work at an art museum; Luke, a bull rider, wants to hold onto his family’s ranch.

Interspersed in Sophia and Luke’s evolving relationship is the aftermath of Ira Levinson’s car accident. At ninety-one and suffering from a serious injury, Ira struggles to retain consciousness until he starts to see visions of his late wife, Ruth, sitting in the car beside him. Ruth reminds him of their history until health can arrive.

It has been ten years since I last read a book written by Nicholas Sparks. I had started to find his books to be formulaic, a bit emotionally manipulating, and better as movies, especially since he switched to writing with screen adaptation in mind. (His production house closed in 2016.) I had pretty much sworn him off as a writer, no longer adding myself to the hold list for his novels at the library.

However, near the end of my mom’s life, she only wanted to read books with happy endings. Despite my counsel to rethink her selections, she picked up several of Sparks’ books at the last used book sale we ever attended together. When she passed, her purchases made their way on to my bookshelves.

Since I’ve been reading a number of “heavy books” as of late – fictional novels with gruesome murders and nonfiction books about the coming crash of our economy – I wanted to read something lighter. Sparks’ book caught my eye, and I decided to give his novels another chance.

Sophia felt like she was crafted so the reader could imagine themselves as her in the story; she’s smart, hard-working, and beautiful but not too beautiful. Luke, though, reminded me to the male character in Part Time Cowboy by Maisey Yates. He wasn’t constructed out of stereotypes about ranches or rodeo cowboys.

And, more importantly, the pacing of Sophia and Luke’s relationship felt right. Not too fast, but speedy enough that I shared Sophia’s roommate’s concerns that perhaps this was too much like teenaged puppy love. (I was also, admittedly, annoyed with how often Sophia complained about her ex-boyfriend to Luke. He was far more attentive and gracious about her comments that I managed to be.)

Obviously, the lives of Ira, Sophia, and Luke would overlap at some point, but the way Ira interrupted Sophia and Luke’s story was jarring at times. And the telling rather than showing structure of Ira and Ruth’s relationship made their portion of the story less compelling to me.

Sparks’ book hit the mark for me as the story came through with the reprieve I needed from the darker topics I’ve been focused on as of late. Things aren’t entirely rosy for Sophia, Luke, Ruth, or Ira, and I doubt my mom ever read this one as it opens with the revelation that Ira’s body is riddled with cancer. But the story was sweet, compelling, enjoyable, and had me wondering if maybe my complete avoidance of Sparks’ work is unfounded.

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