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A trip to the beach without leaving home

“Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people’s hats off — then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can.”

So Ishmael opens Moby Dick. 

I know exactly how the man feels. I don’t acquire the inclination to attend funerals, or to knock hats off, but when that damp, drizzly November comes into my soul, like Ishmael I long to go to the sea. Of course, he intends boarding a whaler, whereas I long to board a house on the beach with a deck, a refrigerator stocked with my favorite foods and beverages, Wi-fi, and a pile of books on a table beside a comfortable chair.

For a good number of years, I made an annual excursion to the Carolina coast, taking along my children, their spouses and a growing tribe of grandchildren, staying in various rental houses in Emerald Isle. Personal circumstances ended those vacations, and though I spent a Christmas two years ago at Topsail Island, I have yet to return to the coast. I had plans to go to Emerald Isle with an old family friend last fall, but the hurricane ruined that trip. One of these days, I’ll find my way back to water and sand, but right now I am far from the Atlantic and find myself walking through April with November in my soul.

So I let Nicholas Sparks bring the beach to me.

In Every Breath (Grand Central Publishing, 2018, 306 pages), Sparks takes his readers, as he so often does, to the coast of North Carolina, and tells us, as he so often does, a love story.

In this case, Hope Anderson and Tru Walls — Tru is short for Truitt — meet at Sunset Beach. Hope, a nurse in her mid-thirties, has come to attend a wedding in Wilmington and to say good-bye to the cottage her family has owned for many years. Her father has ALS, and her parents are selling the cottage to help cover his treatment. Hope has also just quarreled with her boyfriend of six years, an orthopedic surgeon who seems incapable of truly loving a woman. 

Tru, who grew up in Zimbabwe, is a safari guide making his first trip to the United States. The American father whom he has never known and who is now dying  has contacted him in hopes of meeting and explaining what happened so long ago with Tru’s mother, now dead. Tru is staying in his father’s vacation house, awaiting his arrival, right next door to Hope.

They meet when Tru rescues Hope’s dog after Scottie is hit by a car. She offers Tru coffee, they converse, and later that evening they meet again by chance in a nearby restaurant. The following day, at Hope’s invitation, they go to nearby Bird Island, where she shows him Kindred Spirit, a mailbox where people deposit everything from love letters to recipes. Kindred Spirit soon becomes a symbol of their feelings for each other.

The attraction between Tru and Hope is instantaneous, and grows with each passing day. But growing alongside that attraction is the awareness that family obligations and their separate dreams for the future might be major stumbling blocks for any long-term relationship.

To say more about the plot of Every Breath would spoil the book for readers, but here are some these reasons you may enjoy this story.

First, if you’re already a Sparks enthusiast, you’ll find yourself in familiar territory. As Sparks himself writes in his Author’s Note “While my novels generally hew to certain expected norms (they’re usually set in North Carolina, feature a love story, etc.), I do try to vary the themes, characters or devices in interesting ways with every book.” Certainly the themes of Every Breath — love won and lost, caring for family, separation in place and time — as well as the characters and certain unexpected turns in the plot offer readers the pleasure of a good story and insights into the human heart. 

These insights include Hope’s doubts about some major decisions she has made in her life. Which of us has not looked back and wondered whether we had taken a wrong turn? And in Tru — both Tru and Hope are clearly names chosen as emblematic — we confront the pain of love and sacrifice, the hope for second chances and new beginnings. Most importantly, perhaps, Hope and Tru remind us of something most adults already know but are prone to forget, that we may have a roadmap to life, but we can run out of gas, take a wrong turn, or drive off the road. 

Finally, Every Breath is bracing in its realism and its message about love, sacrifice, mistakes made and mistakes forgiven. In Tru, and particularly in Hope, we find people struggling to do the right thing, for themselves and for others, and learning the terrible cost of choices made. 

Far more women than men read fiction, particularly the kind of fiction written by writers like Nicholas Sparks (look online, and you’ll find all sorts of speculation and studies of why this is so). This is unfortunate, as men sometimes ask that famous question put up by Dr. Freud: “What do women want?” In Hope, observant readers can find a few answers to that question. And in Tru, the safari guide who must often carry a rifle to ward off predators, including both wild beasts and human beings, Sparks paints a portrait of a man’s man who is anything but an example of “toxic masculinity”.

At any rate, I got my trip to the beach as well as some lessons about human nature. For now, at least, my drizzly November has faded away.

(Jeff Minick is a writer and teacher. This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.)

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