May 31

Book Review: A Bend in the Road

A Bend in the RoadA Bend in the Road by Nicholas Sparks

I’ve never read a Nick Sparks book, but I know people just adore them and I wanted an escapist romance so I picked this one up from the library based on the fact that it was available. I don’t know when it was written, but it feels like it was set in the 90s. It’s not just the VCR tapes and the fact that no one has a cell phone, it’s also the social/cultural feel. For example, Sarah (the love interest) has a mother who seems deeply committed to convincing Sarah to undergo whatever inconvenience she needs in order to snag a man. Or maybe that’s timeless? It grated. My main complaint with this story is how heavily it leaned on heteronormative stereotypes. Sarah and Miles do not deter one whit from them, which made them feel shallow and made the novel feel like a morality play for restrictive gender roles rather than a real story.

Miles Ryan is the protagonist, the male love interest, the lead. I hate to call him a hero. He’s a tortured soul because he’s a single dad whose wife was killed in a hit-and-run accident two years earlier. He works long hours as a deputy for the sheriff’s department. I imagine that we’re supposed to admire him because he’s a man’s man, a silent protector type, given a soft edge by his love for his athletic young son. We know that his son is a properly masculine because he’s doing poorly in school, as his father did before him. Miles carries a gun everywhere, likes dive bars, and thinks that shooting birds for amusement is a perfectly reasonable thing for “country” boys to do, as long as they’re sparrows rather than owls. He drinks and smokes, but denies the latter and excuses the former because he was so broken up over his wife’s death.

His wife, Missy, was beautiful, but of course you knew that, because how would we admire a male love interest who ever lowered himself to marry someone merely pretty. She was also flawlessly feminine. She liked flowers and felt “completely fulfilled” as a stay-at-home mother. This bugged the shit out of me. Even women who really take to that life don’t feel “completely fulfilled” at it. That’s like wishful thinking on the man’s part, and this kind of guilt-trip garbage people foist on women. Like, if you were a proper woman, you’d be fulfilled wiping jam off the duvet cover and cleaning puke out of the carpet and answering “why” for the 19th time in 20 minutes. That’s the line of a man who refuses to allow his wife to feel any negative emotions whatsoever. But he’s a good dad, so there’s that. Probably a crappy husband though. Their last fight was when she asked him to mow the lawn before company came over, and he went fishing instead. Wife-as-manager. And then he felt guilty because she did it instead, and then got defensive. I guess the reader is supposed to feel like “oh, yeah, that’s the fight me and my spouse have a lot” but I just thought “what a selfish tool.”

So Miles and Sarah meet because Sarah is the teacher for Miles’ son, Jonah. And Jonah is a couple of years’ behind in school so Sarah is going to tutor him to catch up. Jonah is “smart” so they think he can catch up with just a few months’ of tutoring, which makes me think the school district standards must be pretty lax, but whatever. Meet cute. It works. So they alternate tutoring and spend time with each other doing such stupendously fun things as “watching small boys play soccer” and engaging in bland and floundering attempts to flirt. I thought “God, these people are boring.”

Sarah, of course, is also flawlessly feminine. Oh, she has one small flaw–she can’t get pregnant. She was divorced by her former husband for that fact, and she engages in a lot of hand-wringing about it. Oh, oh, oh, poor her, poor lass, who will ever love a 27-year-old skinny, childless, pretty blonde (of course she’s blonde, did you even have to ask?) woman who is so very happy caring for children, so very fulfilled and never frustrated with the stereotypically feminine/care giving profession of schoolteacher? She’s like a walking catfish. If she can’t get a date, she ain’t trying. The only flaw she has is that she’s dreadfully dull, which makes her a perfect match for Miles, the equally dull. Missy’s hobby was jogging. Sarah’s is walking. Guess Miles wanted a woman who was just like his wife, but wasn’t as “fast” ha ha. But seriously, she’s as deep as a blow-up doll.

Miles and Sarah’s courtship rolls along at a respectable speed until we get to the point where Miles realizes he’s in love with Sarah and wants to ask her to marry him. But all along the way, Miles is still tortured by his endless quest to find who really killed his wife. He has a folder of two years’ of research, which he broods over on occasion. He also harbors a deep enmity with a couple of ne’er do wells in town. The one he hates more is “Otis.” When Miles and Otis see each other, they growl and paw the ground and Otis twirls his mustache. Not really, but pretty much.

Then Miles gets some information from an entirely unreliable source (a drunk guy out on probation who desperately wants to stay out of jail) that Otis was the one who killed Missy. Miles, being both violent and stupid, responds to it the way any emotionally stunted, over-privileged man convinced of his moral superiority might–he drives out to Otis’ family compound, points a gun at Otis’ head and basically treats him like he’s LAPD and the guy is Rodney King.

This is the point at which we learn the real identity of the “killer,” which is to say, the one driving the car when Missy was hit. Everyone in this novel only gets one (or fewer) traits, and the driver’s trait is “consumed by remorse.” This accident is the turning point of the driver’s life, and he didn’t turn himself in and now it’s been two years and he’s guilty and ashamed. By now, Miles has gone rogue and is utterly convinced that his life-long enemy is also conveniently the one who killed his wife, and he gets himself suspended from the force for his antics. But they’re looking into Otis again, so the driver of the car decides it’s important to turn himself in. He tells Sarah, and they, unwisely, tell Miles.

I say “unwisely” because it’s clear that Miles is a barely-civilized violent asshole. I had heard a rumor that Nicholas Sparks books often end tragically, and I got my hopes up that Miles would snap and start killing people, maybe ending with himself. Because then at least he would suffer a little more, which would make me feel better, not the least of which it would give him a little more depth. Miles is furious, accuses Sarah of all kinds of ridiculous things. Basically, Miles feels as though Missy’s death was a personal attack against him. Seen from an anthropological perspective, it makes sense. Missy was his property, his property was taken, for the sake of his honor he has to enact violent retribution against the one who did it. His ending speech is all about himself. “She was MY wife. MY wife was taken from ME. You hurt ME and MY child.” He cannot accept it is an accident. That doesn’t fit into his dickswagger/testosterone poisoning/antler-dance/male posturing worldview. If the driver had been an old lady, the story would have fallen apart.

He confronts the one who did it with a gun and there’s universal expectation all around that the expectation is that he’ll murder the driver. Because hey, that’s what you do, right? If YOUR wife dies in a car accident, you clearly have to murder the driver, because otherwise the other apes will think you’re weak. When he finds out a dog was partially responsible, he hunts down and considers killing the dog, except that in that particular culture, dogs rank just under white men and slightly above male children in status. It’s not that his behavior was unexpected, it’s that it’s so typical of the kind of backwards barbaric culture I despise that I kept rooting for Miles to die horribly by his own hand after his family was murdered in front of him. I wanted to chortle wickedly when his world collapsed because of his own foolish pride + inability to maturely handle negative emotions. Hey, a girl can dream, right?

And then later on Sarah and Miles get together after all, which made me slap my face against my palm. But, it was easy to remember she wasn’t a real person, because she had no personality. But if she’d had enough depth to make me believe she was a real person, I’d be furious. He violently abuses suspects with no evidence and breaks the law, yet never once questions that he’s in the right, even when his best friend throws it in his face. These are the kind of people who commit genocide. The kind of guy who goes on a killing vendetta based on the flimsiest of evidence, the kind of guy who has a gun hidden in case the cops take his others, the kind of guy who demands blood justice for a fucking car accident is not the kind of guy you want to be alone with, even if he does look good with his shirt off. Marry him? Might as well tattoo the number for the domestic violence hotline on your arm, sister. You’re gonna need it. And of course Miles never ever forgives the driver, because that would take emotional maturity, which apparently “real men” don’t have. He and Sarah get married and it’s twue wuve happy ever after. Where’s the vomitorium?

I started out giving this two stars, but it’s really one and a half. I did want to find out what happened, so the plot was fun, but the characters were cardboard and the only one who had a personality had a despicable one. The writing is kind of simplistic. Sparks repeats anything you may not have picked up on the first time, so it’s good for people who want something very easy to read. Hey, sometimes you want that. I think a lot of people like that, otherwise why would Sparks be so popular? There isn’t a lot of smut either, though I think the romance was kind of bland. It just plodded along. Even the meet cute was a bit meh. I can’t say I recommend it. I kept waiting for it to redeem itself, but it never got really good. It was more like a train wreck where we were expected to root for the bad guy. He’s not even a fun psychopath, like Hannibal Lecter, he’s just a garden variety, boring as dirt, dumbfuck, redneck, wife-beating, get-my-buddy-the-cop-to-cover-it-up psychopath. I bet the sequel to this is when Miles hunts Sarah down and kills her because Iago told him Sarah was cheating on Miles. You already know Miles doesn’t need evidence. It’s hard to get less romantic than that.

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