Monday, January 3, 2011

Book Report: Safe Haven by Nicholas Sparks

Every Christmas the bf buys me the new hardcover Nicholas Sparks novel. This year's title was Safe Haven, the cover of which I glimpsed on one of our many Target excursions. "There it is!" I cried, pointing, my voice betraying more excitement than the sighting warranted.

That having been said, I was eager to start reading it when I unwrapped it on Christmas Eve and did so as soon as I finished Marley & Me. Maybe this would be a good place to shout SPOILER ALERT! because, as in all my book and movie reviews, I can't be stopped from giving away the ending. So, if you don't want to know, then stop reading now and come back later (if you want to). Maybe I should start putting SPOILER ALERT in all these posts . . .

But on to the discussion.

Not too far into the story, I realized that this book was . . . different. Although it had all the hallmarks of a Nicholas Sparks tearjerker - two single, salt-of-the-earth people, an aura of sadness, and a safe, sleepy North Carolina town - it also had a darkness, the shadow of which had surfaced only in one other Sparks novel, The Guardian. In that story, the darkness stems from a stalker, but in Safe Haven, Sparks takes that idea a little further, casting his heroine, Katie, as a woman on the run from her abusive husband (Kevin).

In many ways, this story is the stuff of Lifetime movies. You know, damaged woman flees violent man, eventually seeking refuge in the arms of kind man. But Katie's flashbacks are more spine-tingling than anything from a movie. As I read, I tried to imagine being married to a man who not only forbid me to drive, have a job, and make friends, but who decided how I dressed, ordered me to cook and clean like a servant - and beat me. The idea was terrifying and was made even more so by the glimpses Sparks offers of the inner workings of Kevin's head.

As you might expect, Katie's escape is chilling. She changes her appearance and her name, crashing in seedy flophouses and changing waitressing jobs every week, fleeing city after city until finally landing in Mayberryesque Southport, North Carolina. There she takes yet another waitressing job and rents a dismal cottage that she slowly but surely begins to refurbish. Her only friend is Jo, a grief counselor who lives in the neighboring cottage. At least she's Katie's only friend until Katie forges a fledgling relationship with Alex, the widower who owns the general store where she frugally shops for rice and beans. This in itself is a quaint notion, the tired young widower raising two small children and managing a general store (complete with lunch counter!) in a world taken over by Walmarts getting to know the quiet, beautiful woman who walks there (she doesn't have a driver's license, not to mention a car), trying in vain to shut the world out.

As per usual, Sparks spends his time describing Alex's wife and the brain tumor that took her life. She's been gone about a year, and Alex hasn't dated anyone since. These sorts of scenarios used to give me lots of trouble when I was younger. I would think, if there's just one person for everyone, and that person dies, then how can the person left behind end up falling in love with someone else? Sometimes the dead spouses in such tales were portrayed as giving their husbands or wives their blessing, outraging me even further. I've softened a bit since then and like to think that I would want the bf to find someone new should anything happen to me. Nevertheless, reading about stuff like this still leaves me feeling a little unsettled.

Alex and Katie's relationship blossoms tentatively. She's a natural with his children, and he appreciates what she's going through because he used to work with battered women as a detective in the army. (As corny as it sounds, I enjoy reading about good people finding love. But then, so must lots of other women, judging from the success of Sparks's novels.) Alex wants to marry Katie, but she reminds him that she's already married, even if under a different name. To be sure, even as she falls in love and begins to feel safe, Sparks reminds us that Kevin, drunker and more unbalanced than ever, is still out there looking for her.

As the story winds down to its inevitable conclusion, Alex asks Katie to watch the kids at night while he picks up a friend at the airport. When he leaves, it's one of those nail-biting moments, kind of like when you're watching a horror movie, willing someone not to open a door. Hours pass before anything happens, but Katie is eventually awakened by smoke and realizes that the house is on fire. What follows is a chaotic episode rife with near-death experiences. The short version is that Alex comes home in time to save Katie and the kids, but not before she gives Kevin an ass-whupping. The only casualities are Kevin (I think his death is self-inflicted if not intentional) and Alex's store. Yet the fireproof safe that Alex kept in his bedroom remains unscathed. In it is a sealed letter from Alex's wife to Katie (or, as she puts it, to the woman he chooses).

This is where things get a little weird. Katie's about to open the letter, alone at her house, when she notices that Jo's house is completely deserted and ramshackle-looking, as if no one has lived there in years. Before Katie even opens the letter she begins to think about her times with Jo. About how Jo asked her not to mention their friendship to Alex because she'd been Alex's grief counselor when his wife died, about how Jo had urged her to give Alex a chance, and finally, about Jo's untouched wine glass the one time they'd met for drinks. In a burst of The Sixth Sense-like clarity, Katie (and I) realized the obvious - that Jo was the ghost of Alex's wife. I was embarrassed not to have seen it coming. I had known there was something off about Jo but had chalked it up to her being one of those nosy, buttinsky friend characters. I was also a little creeped out. But then, it was two o' clock in the morning, and I've been known to get creeped out easily.

Jo's letter to Katie is every bit as heartrending as you'd expect it to be. Sparks pulls out all the stops with his signature story-telling device - the letter. (On the back cover of this book he's even photographed poised over a notebook.) It adds a whole new dimenstion to the kind of love triangle between spouse, deceased spouse, and new lover that I described earlier. Knowing that Jo helped to engineer Alex and Katie's relationship makes the ending even more bittersweet. If you can read the letter (not to mention the book) without crying, then you're a stronger woman than me.

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