This is a proper, old-fashioned weepie from Nicholas Sparks. It’s an interestingly shaped story: alternating between ninety-one year old Ira Levinson as he lies in the wreckage of his car, and the points of view of Sophie and her cowboy Luke, as they meet and quickly fall in love. It’s a lovely comparison – to see these people at the beginnings and ends of their stories, and to learn how they inevitably overlap. It makes for a fascinating shift in perspective with each chapter – and a shift in scale, too – as we pass years with Ira as he lies there for a weekend, flashing back through his whole life with Ruth – and then we progress through the complex phases of falling in love with the young couple at the heart of the book. Ruth also appears as a kind of ghostly figure – nine-tenths Ira’s imagination, surely… but a vivid haunting in her own right, too, as she converses with him, chiding and cheering him on as he struggles to stay alive and the snow falls about the wreckage.
I loved the tales of how the childless Ira and Ruth made a life together, building their collection of twentieth century art treasures in ad hoc fashion. It’s just a little eccentric and all the more believable for it – and it’s wonderful to imagine their house and its walls getting more and more full with all that Abstract Expressionism and Pop art. At the same time there is a very touching sub-plot about the orphaned pupil that the couple almost adopt, and who they lose when he suddenly gets moved away – thrown out of their lives by forces they can’t control.
I really like the way Sparks makes his big plot beats all to do with the everyday forces of mischance that govern our lives. Similarly, in the contemporary story, Luke’s obsession with winning these rodeo bull-rides turns out to be rooted in the secrets that he’s trying to hide from Sophie. There is a reason for everything that happens here, and usually it’s to do with people coping with things that have gone disastrously wrong. All these twined narratives are about people patching together the damaged fabric of their lives and keeping it all together. There’s a very good portrait, I think, of Luke’s mother, Linda, who faces financial ruin and the loss of the ranch she grew up on – but at the same time she's simmeringly furious that her son keeps risking his life in order to help her.
The various plots dovetail together very neatly by the last third. Every joint slides into place like carefully sanded wood. And maybe we can see certain developments coming a mile off, but Sparks is sussed enough to surprise us with a few gentle twists. Rather than shocks and melodrama, this romance is all about wishful thinking and just desserts. Sometimes that’s just the kind of read you need – and I think this is a satisfyingly gentle, genial novel – all about weathering the storm and staying in the saddle.
(Thanks to Sphere for the review copy. 'The Longest Ride' is published tomorrow - 17th September.)