Wilmington’s literary community keeps gaining accolades (two National Book Awards nominees in 2015) and attention in the press. With multiple established publishers in the state (Algonquin, Blair) and new smaller presses gaining traction (Eno, Bull City), it is timely to shine a light on discussions around literature, publishing and the importance of communicating a truthful story in our present world.
Welcome to Carpe Librum, encore’s biweekly book column, wherein I will dissect a current title or an old book—because literature does not exist in a vacuum but emerges to participate in a larger, cultural conversation. I will feature many NC writers; however, the hope is to place the discussion in a larger context and therefore examine works around the world.
Message in a Bottle
Grand Central Publishing, 1998
“It was a day like any other day for me.” Brayden poured cream into a cup of decaf coffee and looked at Kitty. “I showed up for work at the production office at 8 a.m. I had no idea what had happened.”
Last week The New York Times reported on the recovery on what is believed to be the oldest message in a bottle on an Australian beach. 131 years ago the bottle, with a rolled up piece of paper inside, was dropped off the side of a German ship. Apparently, it was a common practice at the time. The message inside indicated where the ship was when the message was dropped into the ocean and requested whomever finds it to contact the German Naval Observatory or nearest German Consulate about the location of the find.
The story in the paper got me thinking about the book “Message in a Bottle,” by Nicholas Sparks, who lives in New Bern, NC. Arguably Mr. Sparks is one of the most commercially successful writers in our state. His books have been turned into big-budget films, starring A-list actors (Paul Newman, Robin Wright, Kevin Costner all appeared in the film adaptation of “Message in a Bottle”). The films have provided incredible, ongoing tourist traffic from fans who come to see the filming locations, and walk the beaches where Sparks brooding heroes sort out their deeply complicated, masculine emotions in the books.
I finally sat down and read my first Nicholas Sparks book last week. I selected “Message in a Bottle” because the heroes’ story is set in and around the Wilmington beaches, the timing with the bottle turning up on an Australian beach was a sort of eerie and unexpected treat.
The story begins with the heroine, Theresa Osborne, finding a message in a bottle on a beach in Cape Cod. It contains a heart-rending letter written by a man to the woman he loves. Theresa is recently divorced and has primary custody of her son. It makes dating and the desire to get involved again with a man less than ideal. As the saying goes: Once bitten, twice shy. But the letter gets under her skin.
Using the resources of her job at the Boston newspaper, she tracks the writer to a small diving store near Wilmington, NC. Within a few days, she is stepping off the plane and browsing his store. He is, of course, gorgeous, reserved, tortured, and deeply in love with his deceased wife, but intrigued by a beautiful woman invading his world.
Commence romantic journey in stunningly beautiful beach setting.
I am late to the Nicholas Sparks party, but I now understand why the recipe for success has borne so much fruit. To a certain extent, it is Disney World in book form: Everyone is beautiful, prosperous, and in spite of their flaws (which will teach them and make them grow), they will find a love that will last eternity.
They are modern-day fairy-tale romances, filled with flourishes that can become amulets and talismans for people so easily: an unexpected discovery of a bottle, a letter to a lost love, and in this book, a boat lovingly restored by hand. These are important markers in our human journey. They let us know who we are and remind us we can continue to touch the past when we need it.
I am not really the intended audience for Nicholas Sparks’ work, but I am a very grateful recipient of his largess. As a result of his books and subsequent films, we see a constant stream of visitors to our area who spend money to take the Hollywood Location Walking Tour, buy his books, stay in local accommodations, eat here, and scoop up souvenirs. The number of times a month I hear myself say “Fiction A through B and part of C was all rented for ‘Safe Haven,’” is still startlingly high, five years after the film’s release. But there it is: the stream of Sparks fans who come through town and leave their money here.
I do wish the NC legislature could understand how a very small business benefits from the initial rental of props for a film to its long-term tourism. Case in point: There is another “One Tree Hill” convention coming to the area this month. People from all over the world will flock here to stay and spend money, all to celebrate the show.
One of the cornerstones of Sparks’ work is the stunning scenery of coastal NC; he absolutely highlights it in his work. For all the lovers appear to be, the center of the story in “Message in a Bottle,” Wilmington and our surrounding beaches, are really the star—dunes, tides, sand, water, sun, moon, all comprising Wrightsville and Carolina beaches and the beautiful, mysterious underwater world of scuba diving. For readers around the globe, Sparks rekindles a belief in eternal love, but for the residents of our coast, he has given us the more tangible gift of tourism dollars.