I’ve only read two Nicholas Sparks before and though not a die-hard romance fan, I enjoyed them both enough (and remembered them well – so made an impression) that I gave this one a go.
It’s actually not much of a romance, and is in fact the story of the opposite end of the love and marriage spectrum – a marital breakdown, drawn out over a year plus. The narrator, Russell Green, introduces himself as a marrying one-woman kind of guy (apart from one early and catastrophic blip). He’s loving, romantic, devoted - and also a people-pleaser. Which turns out to be pretty well a disastrous combination when it comes to his wife. Vivian is beautiful, extravagant, demanding, impatient, inconsistent, and slightly psychopathic in her inability to feel any kind of empathy, or to see things from any other point of view but her own (which is warped anyway). Russell tries to win back her love by trying ever harder to please her, but ultimately the doormat approach, far from leading her to reciprocate his deep affection, only nurtures her contempt.
It isn’t an especially uplifting read, in the sense that Russell, although sympathetic, is so clearly put-upon that readers will most likely develop a strong desire to give him a good kick up the bum and yell grow a backbone! Luckily he has a supportive family and has reconnected with a kind, warm and empathetic old girlfriend, who all see things how it is, so provide a refreshing perspective and alleviate his non-stop doormatting.
It is a departure from Nicolas Sparks’ previous novels, whose underlying themes have always seemed to be that love is powerful, and true, and that a man and a woman can be soul mates whose love will last forever… The main protagonist of Two By Two, Russell, believes this, and his actions, desperately clinging on to a relationship which is failing no matter how badly he is treated, demonstrate how he can’t relinquish this belief. Events prove him catastrophically wrong.
It does make me wonder, finding out that Sparks’ own marriage failed at this time, how much was based on his own experience. I suspect the main protagonist might well be a true-ish depiction. Hopefully the depiction of Vivian’s contempt and manipulation is more fictional.
Some reviewers found it slow. I didn’t. It’s an interesting and quite unusual novel, I think, in so far as it delves deeply into the minutiae of a relationship and depicts its disintegration. As a character study of a particular type of loving person who can be terribly used, it’s also truthful, and revealing. I am sure many people will look at this and recognise different aspects – so from that point of view, I think it’s a very good novel, in the sense that fiction is meant to tell essential truths.
My significant other, after being told about it, refused to take out his mother-in-law. His excuse? “You don’t want me to be a doormat like that guy, do you?”
In addition, there is a nice blossoming romance with an old ex-girlfriend which gives a dollop of the more usual Sparks-style, plus the relationship of Russell with his daughter and how that develops once he is the main caregiver, is brilliant. Small details of the things they do together are handled brilliantly, and how Vivian attempts to undermine Russell even here – opposing the things he wants to do ever-so-subtly, like bike-riding, but then laying on the guilt when their daughter’s first bike ride happens without her… The signs are there that she is manipulative and mean to him, long before the relationship is officially over.
I have to say that the novel is very skillfully constructed, with blips in time that give a little bits of backstory about Russell, his history, his lovely birth family, gradually building up a deeper and more complex picture of each character and their relationships. I think the subtlety and skill with which this complex story is woven, with so much resting on small everyday events and its depiction of character, is actually quite brilliant.
I would probably give this a 4.5 stars (five star system is so blunt!) but think I'm often a bit on the stingy side - so going up not down.