Romancing novels the easy way

At the pool the other day, I saw a woman on a deck chair reading a novel by Nicholas Sparks.

It reminded me of the two movies based on Sparks' novels which I watched not once, but twice, on cable TV last year. At the time, I did not know how popular the writer was. I have since found out that he has written 17 novels, all of which have been New York Times bestsellers.

Sparks, who is 48 this year, has sold a staggering 89 million copies of his works worldwide, in over 50 languages, at last count. Eight of them have been adapted into movies, which also broke box-office records.

The two movies I watched, Message In A Bottle (1999) and Nights In Rodanthe (2008), grossed US$84 million and US$118 million worldwide, respectively.

I am an avid reader of book reviews published in the major American and British papers, but I have never come across a review of a Sparks novel.

I asked my colleague Akshita Nanda, who reviews books in SundayLife!, how she would classify the author and why he is dismissed by critics.

She replied: "I classify books by Nicholas Sparks as 'chuck lit', since they are usually romances or dramas with a strong romantic thread and written by a man. These are not quite Harlequin romances but definitely in the same row as books by Jodi Picoult or Mitch Albom.

"These authors are very prolific. They deliver books that are comfortable reads and accessible. Editors often have an aversion to publishing regular reviews when a writer is prolific and pens bestsellers, but what applies more in the case of Sparks is that his books are much of a sameness in tone. There is little to be said about each book but a lot to be said about his entire career."

Well, I won't be reading any of the romance novels by Sparks, but I don't mind catching their movie adaptations, as and when they come on cable TV and there is nothing else better to watch. You can call them my guilty pleasure.

I watched the two movies twice because I quite enjoyed them, but mainly because they star Robin Wright (in Message In A Bottle) and Diane Lane (in Nights In Rodanthe). I consider both of them good actresses and they are also very attractive.

In Message In A Bottle, Wright plays Theresa, a Chicago Tribune columnist who while vacationing in Cape Cod and jogging on the beach, comes across a green bottle in the sand. In the bottle is a soulful note, addressed to a woman named Catherine.

"The prose is waterlogged but the paper is not," sniffed The New York Times movie critic at the time, Janet Maslin, in a 1999 review.

"You came into my dream last night with that smile that always held me like a lover, rocked me as a child," the sender has declared in the note.

Fascinated, Theresa takes the note back to her office and reads it aloud to her sighing colleagues. She traces the note to a sailboat builder named Garret (Kevin Costner) who lives in North Carolina. Garret has written the note to his dead wife, whom he cannot let go.

While Theresa, a single mother, goes looking for this sensitive man, the Tribune publishes the letter on Page One and receives mailbags of letters in response.

Theresa meets the taciturn Garret by the sea and, of course, they fall in love. All is well until Garret visits Theresa in Chicago and chances upon his message in a bottle in her night drawer. He feels betrayed and stomps off in the pouring rain.

I won't disclose the ending just in case you may want to catch the movie or read the book. Let's just say it is tragic.

Nights In Rodanthe, too, has a tragic ending. An unhappily married Adrienne (Lane) leaves her two children with her estranged husband to baby-sit a North Carolina coastal inn owned by a friend, who has gone off for weekend sex with her muscled beau.

Who should be the only guest at the inn but a troubled surgeon (played by Richard Gere).

After they have dinner, what should hit them but a hurricane. The wooden inn's shutters bang open and shut, and the couple are thrown together. Sex and love follow.

Lane in this movie does not have her talent stretched the way it was in Unfaithful (2002), in which she plays a housewife who indulges in a fling with a mysterious book dealer, but she's still eminently watchable.

And just as Wright, vibrant and vital, cannot carry Message In A Bottle alone (even when Paul Newman makes a welcome appearance), so too Lane cannot save Nights In Rodanthe. But they are both a pleasure to watch.

I am fond of Gere, who plays himself in all his movies, but Costner is just too earnest for me.

I won't pay good money to go to the cinemas to watch either movie or any of the other Sparks adaptations, but I will sit through them at home if they come on the TV. Just don't ask me to shed tears.

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