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A best-selling American novelist for over a decade, Nicholas Sparks is a writer of dramatic fiction, or literary fiction with elements of romance. Three of his novels have been New York Times number-one best sellers, and several have been made into films. Though they often center around romance, his novels explore deeper themes of hope and sacrifice with which millions of readers worldwide avidly identify.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
On Track for Success
Born on New Year’s Eve in the snowy plains city of Omaha, Nebraska, Nicholas Sparks grew up as one of three children to Patrick Michael and Jill Emma Marie Sparks. Following his father, who was still involved in graduate studies, his family moved from Nebraska to Minnesota, then to Los Angeles, California, back to Nebraska, and then back to California. Sparks, whose father was a professor, graduated valedictorian from his high school in Fair Oaks, California, and went on a full track scholarship to study at Notre Dame.
Running was not only Sparks’s passion—he also excelled at it. In 1985, as a freshman at Notre Dame, he broke a school record as part of a relay team. Only an injury prevented him from continuing to devote himself to track: he spent the summer recovering and writing his first (never published) novel. Sparks went on to graduate with high honors in business finance, and he eventually went back to running, but of these activities, it would turn out to be writing at which he excelled most.
Sparks had a considerable distance to go, however. He wrote his second novel after marrying in 1989, but again the novel was not published, and he took on a variety of jobs over the next few years to make ends meet. After working as a real estate appraiser, a server and a dental supply salesperson, he finally broke into publishing by a collaborative book with his longtime friend, Olympic gold medalist Billy Mills, entitled Wokini: A Lakota Journey to Happiness and Self-Understanding (1990). The book sold well and provided Sparks with a certain amount of experience with which to pursue his writing career.
A String of Hits
Sparks’s first published novel, The Notebook (1996), was a resounding success, one of only three novels in recent history to spend more than a year on the hardback best-seller list. The story of a World War II couple’s romance, as told through the notebook of an elderly man, The Notebook was bought in 1995 on a seven-figure advance by Warner Books, thereby securing Sparks’s reputation as a novelist.
Over the next decade, Sparks followed up his initial success with ten more novels, all of which earned a place on the best-seller list. Message in a Bottle (1998), A Walk to Remember (1999), The Notebook, and Nights in Rodanthe (2002) have all been made into films, and the film rights have been purchased for several of his other novels.
Sparks continues to write and to be involved in his community. Following the American tradition of giving back to the organizations that gave to him, Sparks provides scholarships, internships, and fellowships to writers in the creative writing MFA program at Notre Dame. He lives in North Carolina with his wife, Catherine, and their five children.
Works in Literary Context
Romance and Dramatic Fiction
Romance fiction is a genre, or type, of fiction that, according to Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism (2008), ”traces the developing romantic relationship between two people, chronicles the obstacles the couple must endure to be together, and concludes with a declaration of love and likely marriage.” Although Sparks’s work contains some elements of romance, his novels differ from romances in a number of significant ways. First, they tend to not to end ”happily ever after”; Sparks’s couples often learn that hope ends in disappointment. Second, they present a wider variety of more carefully drawn characters than often appear in romance novels—realistic characters who have to deal with real-life situations.
Nicholas Sparks’s novels have been considered ”dramatic fiction,” a type of fiction that employs dramatic elements to create a more exciting effect than that of traditional literary fiction. His novels deal with topics more serious than those generally addressed in the romance genre—Alzheimer’s, loss of family members, infertility— and, though they tend to focus on romance, are better classified in this subgenre of literary fiction. The term could be used to apply to the works of such writers as Michael Ondaatje, Mitch Albom, and Ian McEwan.
Works in Critical Context
One of the top-selling American novelists of the past decade, Nicholas Sparks has impressed critics with his tender, yet natural, narration of love stories. Though his work is sometimes criticized as being unrealistic or overly sentimental, readers seem to identify easily with his characters and themes, and his novels’ constant presence on best-seller lists qualifies his work as overwhelmingly successful.
Sparks’s first published novel, The Notebook, is a frame narrative in which an elderly man recounts the romance with his wife that began nearly sixty years before. It was both a popular and a critical success, with Reviewer’s Bookwatch critic Marty Duncan writing, ”Read this book. Be prepared to shed a tear or three. Be prepared for visions of two lovers holding hands with tenderness. Be prepared to feel sad for them both.”
Perhaps one reason for the book’s popularity was readers’ ability to find consolation in that sadness. The notebook referred to in the book’s title is the notebook from which the protagonist retells the story of their romance to his wife, who is afflicted with Alzheimer’s. As Martha Whitmore Hickman postulates, ”Is it possible that, despite the medical prognosis, love can redeem some hours for those afflicted with Alzheimer’s?”
A Walk to Remember
Another of Sparks’s best sellers, A Walk to Remember, is generally considered in the same vein as his earlier novels. Patty Engelmann writes in Booklist, ”Sparks … proves once again to be a master of pulling heartstrings and bringing a tear to his readers’ eyes.”
Some critics fault the work for this very fact, complaining that Sparks is merely following the same pattern by which he has established past success. A Publishers Weekly reviewer states, ”This is the author’s most simple, formulaic, and blatantly melodramatic package to date.” Other reviewers, while not as harsh, admit that many of the narrative devices in this novel, such as flashbacks, secrets, and monumental decisions, have been seen in Sparks’s work before.
- ”Romance Fiction in the Twentieth Century.” Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism, Vol. 198. Detroit: Gale, 2008, pp. 236-342.
- Review of A Walk to Remember. Publishers Weekly 246, Issue 34 (August 23, 1999): 42.
- Hickman, Martha Whitmore. Review of The Notebook. Christian Century (December 17, 1997): 1201.
- Monaghan, Pat. Review of Wokini: A Lakota Journey to Happiness and Self-Understanding. Booklist (April 1, 1994): 1407.
- Paul, Nancy. Review of A Walk to Remember. Booklist (May 15, 2000): 144.
- Smith, Sarah Harrison. Review of Message in a Bottle. New York Times Book Review (June 14, 1998): 21.
- Steffens, Daneet. Review of Message in a Bottle. Entertainment Weekly (April 24, 1998): 75.
- Wilkinson, Joanne. Review of The Notebook. Booklist (August 1996): 1856.
- Nicholas Sparks, Author of “Nights in Rodanthe” and “The Notebook” (online chat). The Washington Post online edition. Accessed November 12, 2008, from http:// www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/ discussion/2008/09/12/DI2008091202569.html. Last updated on November 15, 2008.
- Nicholas Sparks: Formal Biography. The Official Nicholas Sparks Web site. Accessed November 12, 2008, from http://www.nicholassparks.com/ShortBio.html. Last updated in 2005.
- Profiles: Billy Mills. Running Past Web site. Accessed from http://www.runningpast.com/billy_mills. htm. Last updated in 2008.
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