A safe haven indeed

Published 1:49 pm Thursday, April 25, 2013

Column: Constant Reader, by Angie Barker

Spring is around the corner and love is in the air. Romance is an intriguing and complicated idea because the definition is objective to the individual. For some, it is a soft-focus candle-lit vision of long-stemmed roses, bubble baths and walks on the beach. If you’re like me, then a walk on the beach equates to sprained ankles and a bubble bath is where you pretend you can’t hear your offspring banging outside the door.

Angie Barker

Angie Barker

For those of us on the other side, romance is anything but soft focus. It’s more like the harsh overhead lighting of a truck stop bathroom that makes me look like I am unfamiliar with the concept of sleeping. I call this the “Walking Dead” version of romance. All my faults are as visible as my attributes because in a post-apocalyptic world there is no polite society and definitely no soft blurred edges. My bed is a place where children escape nightmares, pets puke to voice their protest of everything and husbands think their gas really does warm up the cold sheets faster. It does not. But that doesn’t mean we are anti-romantics. We just find it in the cracks rather than in grand gestures.

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Romance in literature is as eclectic as real life. From bare-chested Fabio covers of Harlequin to gray-tie wearing millionaires to the starry-eyed poetry of Keats and the gothic tragedy of the Brontes, romance has always been defined by the reader. The current king of romance in popular culture is Nicholas Sparks, author of “The Notebook,” “A Walk to Remember,” and the most current adaptation to hit theaters, “Safe Haven.”

Even if you have not read one of his 17 romantic fictions or seen one of his eight adapted films (two more coming, “Best of Me” in 2014 and “The Longest Ride” in 2015), it seems that everyone is familiar with the man and his message: love comes at a cost. Sparks’ style focuses on the suffering involved with loving someone that usually involves death or disease. “Safe Haven” veers slightly from this formula by casting the threat to the couple in the form of an ex, and it is better for it.

"Safe Haven" by Nicholas Sparks

“Safe Haven” by Nicholas Sparks

The mysterious protagonist, Katie, arrives in a small town in North Carolina looking for a “safe haven.” She just left her abusive police detective husband, Kevin, in a well-organized “Sleeping with the Enemy”-style escape. I mean Katie didn’t take secret swim lessons and pretend to drown, but I think Julia Roberts would be impressed nonetheless. Katie just wants some quiet and some space to breathe.

What she gets is a nosy well-meaning neighbor, Jo, and Alex, the widow and father of two. Widows and single parents also appear frequently in Sparks’ novels as a means of building a layered and vulnerable character in only three nouns. Alex and Katie fall into this Sparks trap as two wounded individuals dealing with the fallout from their pasts. They got baggage that would require a storage locker, and yet, they fall in love because they are both emotionally scarred.

I should mention that these two are beachwalkers, not deadwalkers, so when Alex finds a poster that labels Katie a murderer, he totally believes it. In the world of soft focus, faults need not apply. I get that murder is kind of a biggie, but I want a partner who brings a shovel, not the police.

Once Katie tells him she is innocent Alex is relieved and ready to party despite a few problems:

1. She is still married

2. to a psycho

3. who is coming for her

4. with a legally permitted gun

5. that he is trained to use

6. and Alex is now standing between them.

Alex should really take a beat here and do some soul searching, but lucky for us he doesn’t. It is the tension between the two story lines that makes this novel one of Sparks’ best. The dramatic thriller plot of crazy Kevin balances the sugary sweet romance of Katie and Alex and makes their eventual collision a pleasurable payoff.

At least until the unnecessary, convoluted and frustrating twist at the end. A twist so ridiculous that it threatens to undermine the entire the novel just to emphasize the point that our past haunts us and those we love. Mr. Sparks, you are better than this, and we readers deserve to be left with a satisfying ending to an entertaining novel.