Love in actuality

The Longest Ride
Nicholas Sparks
2013, pp 449

Nicholas Sparks’ 17th novel The Longest Ride focuses on two different stories involving two separate couples, one old and the other young. Ira and Ruth, and Sophia and Luke are separated by years and experience, and their lives are about to converge in surprising ways.

The story is told from three points of view. Ira Levinson, a haberdasher, is an old man who’s caught in an accident. By his own admission, he’s a Southerner and a Jew, born in 1920. He’s aware, right at the start of the book, that’s he’s stuck in his car, that the vehicle has collided with something, and that there’s a snowstorm coming on. He’s also aware of major injuries.

As he drifts in and out of consciousness, he sees, and speaks to, Ruth, his wife of many years. The only problem here is, as Ira is all too aware, Ruth has been dead for nine years. But she’s beside him in the car anyway, whether as an apparition or a conjuration of his mind he does not know. Yet she is there, and she is, as she always has been, the person closest to Ira.

Her presence in the car, whether imagined or ghostly — real, keeps the old man sane, even as he recollects his entire life in flashes and vivid detail. Ruth is practical, and does not allow her injured husband to drift into the darkness of death or sleep for long. Instead, she talks, and her speech stirs Ira to respond, temporarily blocking out the shock of the accident.

The apparition, whose appearance seems to change as she helps him remember their life together, gives insight into her character — that of a capable, gentle and caring woman who lived through hardship and disappointment, and yet was able to keep her thoughts happy and cheerful. Ira comes across as a levelheaded man with many virtues and varied experiences.

Ira and Ruth’s lives span the war, they’ve seen strife, and they’ve lived past Ira’s injuries that left them bereft of children. Both Ira and Ruth are clearly defined as characters, and both are endearing in their own way. Even while waiting for someone to find him, trapped in a snowstorm as he is, Ira’s mind grasps at reality and a dream — state of memory that refuses to crush his spirit.

Then there is Luke Collins, a bull rider recovering from a traumatic accident that involves a violent bull named ‘Big Ugly Critter’ that leaves him vulnerable, but determined to continue riding. Big Ugly Critter is an animal, only alluded to and rarely glimpsed, but there is power to the creature, and pent up rage that frightens Luke. He struggles to keep his ranch intact, but his mother does not approve of his methods. Because each time he participates in a bull-riding event, his life is at risk.

There’s also Sophia, an art and history student from Wake Forest, who’s barely over a breakup. Luke rescues Sophia from a damsel-in-distress type scenario with her ex-boyfriend, and the two instantly form a bond. Their story is, however, more predictable.

It involves Sophia’s jealous and unfaithful ex who tries to get back at her for daring to end their relationship, and her best friend Marcia who has a few surprises of her own. Sophia’s relationship with Luke moves quickly, sometimes too quickly for comfort, as she finds herself comfortable in his presence a day after meeting him. Sophia is young, mature in some ways, naïve in others.

There are times when Luke appears to be characterised a little better than Sophia, however, neither character is as engaging as Ira and Ruth.
The shifting points of view can get a little confusing as the story progresses, and each changing perspective can force the reader to go back and forth a little in the beginning. Ira’s car accident seems frozen in time, which it is to some extent, and Luke and Sophia’s story is fluid.

The Longest Ride is a story of hope and redemption, of romance and understanding between the couples, and subtly woven morals. While far removed from each other on the outside, Ira and Ruth, and Sophia and Luke are more similar than dissimilar in their deepest hopes and fears. The plot is perhaps not as strong as in Sparks’ earlier novels, however, there is a narrative thread that binds the various voices in The Longest Ride.

Ira’s life seems lost with the death of Ruth, and Luke discovers a deep sense of satisfaction after meeting Sophia. The revelation that these two couples will eventually come together is not surprising, it’s expected from revelations in the blurb. But how it happens is surprising, and the buildup leading to it is intriguing. Overall, The Longest Ride is a light, enjoyable romantic read.

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