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Book Review – The Longest Ride by Nicholas Sparks

This was my first foray into the world of Nicholas Sparks. I’m usually not a fan of borderline unrealistic romance novels, but since I liked the film based on this book I thought I would give it a shot. Before I go any further, I’ll just say that ‘The Longest Ride’ is the only movie based on his books that I have liked, so the likelihood that I’ll read another one of his novels is pretty small.

What draws me to this particular story is that Sparks includes art by artists who have inspired and enthralled me for my whole life. He obviously did his research when included these artists (De Kooning, Picasso, Pollock) and Black Mountain College.

The story revolves around two love stories. One is of Ira and Ruth Levinson which starts during WWII and lasts decades until Ruth dies, leaving Ira alone. The other love story is a modern one of Sophia and Luke told during present day.

Ira, alone after Ruth’s death, is driving up to Black Mountain College to read a letter he wrote for Ruth. This had been a tradition for them on their anniversary. He crashes his car. It’s February and there’s a snow storm. While Ira waits for help that may never come, he starts having conversations with Ruth’s ghost. Through these conversations, we get flashbacks of their life together.

They collected art as a way to fill their life with joy (Ira was incapable of conceiving a child due to getting small pox during the war).  Ruth, a school teacher, befriended a boy who couldn’t read and gave him the education he desired. He lived with his step brother on a failing farm and didn’t even own shoes. Ruth and Ira longed to adopt him, but the family moved away suddenly and that was the last time they saw him.

Meanwhile, Sophia, an art history major attending college, meets Luke at his bull riding event. There’s a convoluted backstory with Sophia’s ex-boyfriend that really doesn’t belong in the story so this is the only time I will mention it (it’s not in the movie, for good reason). She and Luke begin dating. Luke fails to tell Sophia that he was once injured by a bull so badly that if he hits he head again, he could die. Also, the medical bills from his injury are causing he and his mother to lose their ranch. Luke continues to bull ride in hopes  he will able to pay off the loans, but he could also die. Sophia is also vaguely worried that she won’t get a job running a gallery or museum, but it’s in afterthought in Sparks writing (unfortunate since he included so many great artists in Ira and Ruth’s story).

Near the end of these two interlacing stories, Luke and Sophia find Ira in his crashed car. They manage to get him to a hospital where he asks Sophia to read the last letter to Ruth out loud. She does so, and the letter makes Luke and Sophia see similarities in their own relationship while Ira lies dying.

Then, the two walk out of the hospital without a second thought of him until they end up at an auction that is selling the collection of art amassed by Ruth and Ira. The first item up for bidding is a painting by Ruth’s student, the one she wanted to adopt. He painted a crude, but loving portrait of her. No one wants it, and Luke bids on it not knowing that Ira stipulated in his will that whoever buys the portrait will receive the collection in its entirety. Luke and Sophia sell off most of the art so save the ranch. They stay together. The end.

A lot of things irk me so I’m going to be frank. Why did Sophia and Luke just walk away from Ira without a second thought? I would have followed up on the man I had just saved, but that’s just me. Next, why on earth would Sophia let Luke sell off all of that art?  The ranch loans weren’t the millions of dollars that selling the paintings would give Luke, so they could have kept most of the collection intact. Even if they needed the money, no art major would sell it all off without a second thought. I speak as an professional artist. I would have found a way to keep from selling it all off (but I’m not Sophia whose character isn’t one I would ever seek out).

That story line with Sophia’s ex that I said I wouldn’t mention again? Well, I lied. It’s a dumb side story and adds nothing to Sophia’s character. It just makes her seem naive and shallow. Maybe that was the point. Or maybe Sparks doesn’t know how to write modern women in the twenties without making them seem a little petty. I think Sophia was the character he cared about the least as an author.

Lastly, why didn’t Luke and Sophia meet and save Ira sooner? Get to know him a little. Next to Ira and Ruth’s love story which is so rich, Sophia and Luke’s really feels like an afterthought.

That said, the movie actually improves upon the story.  Luke and Sophia are both more grounded in reality and are actually likable people (I really dislike Sophia in the book). Plus, Sophia is studying Black Mountain College in school, sit it is an extra tie in with Ira and Ruth. They save Ira on their first date and not at the end like the book. Sophia befriends Ira and reads the letters he wrote for Ruth to him as he convalesces. Through this friendship, Sophia learns what love really could be even as she and Luke break up because he won’t stop bull riding. In then end, Ira teaches both Sophia and Luke what they could be missing out on if both of them didn’t change.

At the end of the movie, Luke still buys the portrait of Ruth. He still gets the collection of art and saves the ranch. The main difference, however, is that Sophia opens an art museum to house the collection of art. It is something that I’m surprised didn’t happen in the book (since I had seen the movie before reading the novel). Sparks obviously has an interest in art, but why did he give the art to an art history major only to have them sell it off? Why even make Sophia an art major is you don’t tie in the loose ends?

The book is worth reading if only for the love between Ira and Ruth. Their’s is a story that deserves telling. If you like Sparks’ novels, then I’m sure you’ll love this one. Sparks is a talented writer.  Half of this novel is beautiful. Half of it is convoluted and under written. I prefer the movie, but that’s just me.

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