I’m not about to knock New Bern novelist Nicholas Sparks. That was me, propped in bed with a horrid cold, a year or so ago, begging my husband to go out for one more, please, just one more, of those pillow-soaker videos made from Sparks’s bestselling romance novels.
So when I heard that Sparks’s latest, “Two by Two” (six weeks on the New York Times bestseller list), was set in Charlotte, I was intrigued. What landmarks would he use? How would he describe the Queen City?
Blandly is how. Indifferently. Vaguely. Ho-hum.
When the hero Russell Green’s six-year-old daughter falls off her bike, her takes her “to the emergency room.” Excuse me. Was that CMC? Novant on Hawthorne? Mercy on Vail?
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Furious with his ex-wife Vivian, Russ calls Emily and asks her to meet him at the park near the house, “where there was a scattering of picnic tables.” Um, which park?
Russ follows Emily into a private drive that “led to a private country club, with a membership fee that was a bit out of my league.” How about a direct hit on this one?
Sparks does, however, mention Walmart. The Charlotte Observer and the Charlotte Comedy Zone (no details). And there’s a nod to a picnic at Lake Norman.
Sparks has never been long on physical landscape, which, to me, is one of the great pleasures of reading. Think of Jane Austen, for instance, describing Pemberley House in “Pride and Prejudice.”: “It was a large, handsome, stone building, standing well on rising ground, and backed by a ridge of high woody hills... .”
Or Chekhov in his short story, “The Exile.” “Ten paces below, the river flowed darkly, muttering to itself as it dug a path between the steep clay banks and made its way to the distant sea.”
Or John Updike in his short novel, “Of the Farm. ” Black-eyed susans, daisy fleabane, chicory, goldenrod, butter-and-eggs, each flower of which was like a tiny dancer leaping, legs together—all of these scudded past the tractor wheels.”
Here’s our own bestselling novelist Kathy Reichs describing Charlotte’s Elizabeth neighborhood, from her novel, “First Bones,” set largely in the 1980s:
“It’s after eight when I pull to the curb in a neighborhood just south of uptown. Like Millikin’s rural patch, Elizabeth is far from hip. But rent is cheap and the quartier has a certain je ne sais quoi. I kill the engine, hear the wail of an ambulance not far off. After six months, the sirens barely register. Presbyterian Hospital stands at the end of the block.”
Or Charlotte’s Kimmery Fleischli, whose novel, “The Queen of Hearts,” will be out in early 2018:
“We made our way down Tryon, passing Trade Street with three of its corners crowned by glorious statues of Transportation, Commerce, and Industry, all of them looking toward the fourth corner, where a bronzed mother stood holding a baby aloft. We stopped in silence. On a more typical day, while whizzing by in a stream of disgruntled commuters, one didn't really appreciate the subtleties expressed here: the foundations of the city’s past gazing solemnly and hopefully at its future.
“Ah,” said Wyatt finally. “I think we’re having a moment.”
Never too late for any of us, Mr. Sparks.