Wednesday, May 28, 2008

The Choice, by Nicholas Sparks

She and Kevin had been a couple since their senior year at the University of North Carolina. He got to know her family, and she got to know his. They fought and made up, broke up and reunited. They balanced each other. They were good for each other. There would be no contest if the choice came down to Kevin or Travis, not even close. Having reached clarity on the issue, she decided it didn't matter whether Travis was flirting. He could flirt all he wanted; in the end, she knew exactly what she wanted in her life. She was sure of it.

--The Choice, page 73

I've been a devoted Nicholas Sparks fan since falling in love with Message in a Bottle. Aside from that novel, which remains a personal favorite, I've read five of his other works (The Notebook, A Walk to Remember, The Rescue, A Bend in the Road, and The Wedding). He has published 13 novels throughout his career to date, with The Choice as his most recent (September 2007).
The Choice, despite my admiration of Sparks, was a disappointment. Before I explain why, here's a brief synopsis.

Gabby, a woman in her late twenties, moves to Beaufort, North Carolina to be closer to her boyfriend, Kevin, and gain some independence from her family. She's been with Kevin for several years and is in love with him; she worries, though, that he'll never be ready to get married. Gabby's new neighbor, Travis, is in his early thirties and a hopeless bachelor. He's dated several women but never felt that spark, and his married friends tease him about his single status. Overall, though, Travis is happy and leads a fulfilling life among his friends and family and in his job as the town veterinarian. He never realized anything was missing until Gabby moved in next door.

Likewise, Gabby never knew her life suffered from a void until meeting Travis. She'd always followed the rules and followed a rather safe existence. Travis, by contrast, unabashedly reveled in adventure and risk-taking. He'd spent some time traveling the world with no set destinations in mind, soaking in various cultures and living in the moment. Even once he'd settled in Beaufort, Travis spent his off-hours water skiing, parasailing, riding his motorcycle, and genuinely enjoying the world around him. His vivid and enthusiastic personality immediately attracted Gabby; Gabby's beauty and previously unsatisfied sense of adventure attracted Travis. Hey now, let's make a love story.

But, wait. Gabby has Kevin. She's in love with Kevin. He's a sweet and caring boyfriend, despite his apparent commitment-phobia. But Travis is handsome and fun, and he won't stop flirting with her. They also share an uncanny connection that seems to defy the short duration of their acquaintance. What's Gabby going to do?

She has to make a choice. Let's recall the name of the novel. And let's read the quote at the start of this review. Hmmmmm.

That's when Sparks throws a wrench into our expectations. The decision-making has only just begun, and when Gabby chooses between Kevin and Travis, the novel is only half over. Travis will soon have an even more agonizing choice to make, and it does not involve another love interest. It's a complete twist in the novel and has the potential to be enthralling and engaging.

However, I feel that this twist is unexpected (as twists should be) yet also unsatisfying (as twists shouldn't be). I'll leave you to make your own assessment of this plot surprise, but I will say that for me, it didn't work. The second half of the novel felt unnatural and somewhat disjointed from the first half. The novel's ending is predictable (as we often expect from love stories) but also unfulfilling (even though, on the surface, it seems to offer us what we wanted). Finding a balance between predictability and surprise is an enigma for the author of love stories; yet sometimes, they find a way to succeed. Sparks usually emerges as a master of this technique, but in this case, he's fallen short.

Furthermore, several of Sparks' characterizations in this novel seem either inadequate or artificial. Kevin, for instance, appears only through phone conversations and Gabby's memories; only once does he actually appear in person to take part in the novel's action. Considering the weight of Gabby's choice in the first half of the novel, this inattention is problematic.

Also, Travis' sister, Stephanie, is portrayed as an outgoing girl who speaks her mind through honest advice and playful quips; however, I found her character to be a bit over-the-top, and her constant banter quickly grew tiresome. Usually, even Sparks' minor characters are endearing and quietly unique, and so these defective characterizations only added to the disappointment created by the faulty plot twist.

I currently own another Sparks novel that I've yet to read: The Guardian. I hope that this novel can restore my high opinion of a long-time favorite author.


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