From Andrea’s Reading List: Dear John

As my regular readers probably noticed, I’ve been reading Dear John by Nicholas Sparks, primarily because I was asked to review it, and the basic synopsis sounded interesting. Coming into it, I suspected I’d find the sort of, ah, quality of literature often produced by the reigning kings on the best seller lists. He actually did fairly well in that department, all considering. Most of the questionable literary devices only a trained eye would notice or care about.

While book could have benefited from another round of editing, I understand the temptation publishers have to skip that and rush an author to press when they know the book will sell on the author’s name alone regardless. It is a double standard—an unknown author would be rejected if they turned in a novel with a prologue and an epilogue written in present tense, and a chapter worth of back story before beginning the actual story in chapter two.

Still, authors like Sparks have gained the trust of their publisher and their fans and such trust covers a multitude of editorial “sins.” Honestly,  though, I doubt the wisdom of  beginning your book with roughly twenty five pages of  monologue, written in blocks of text of that sometimes take up an entire page,  and part of it in a tense many readers despise even when an author knows how to do it right, as Sparks seems to. Indeed, his vivid sense of detail and voice made it work, except for the minor issue that the narrator, John, repeats most of what we learn in chapter one to his leading lady no later than we really needed to know those details. I’ll grant him a pass on this, though, as many authors at his level are under contract and working up against a tight deadline. We’ll see if his fans do the same.

If they manage to plow through the first twenty five pages, I imagine his hard-core fans certainly will. The book is saturated with movie-quality descriptive images, almost, but not quite, to the point of being too much. That and a talent for bringing characters to life are certainly the book’s redeeming qualities.

Dear John doesn’t show much understanding of redemption, though. Sparks chose to make the leading lady a regular at church, Savannah even talks the nonreligious narrator into attending a couple times. John’s monologue also reads a lot like a testimony of someone’s wild days before the savior turned them around—only John’s “savior” is the US Army, not Jesus. Personally, this makes me cringe, as the last thing we need is people looking to the government to save them.

On the bright side, John is more loyal to the Army than some who profess Christ, John and Savannah make it fifty pages without kissing, and a hundred without ending up in the sack. But  that they eventually do—and neither ever admits any wrong doing—shows no respect for biblical morality, and the characters consistently make remarks that reinforce this sense of disrespect.

In a way, the story shows why premarital sex is wrong—Sparks is upfront, maybe too upfront for some readers, that they don’t marry—and an illustration of all the things one shouldn’t do in a relationship, and shows why it is imperative we know more scripture than one bible verse taken out of context, and side with the bible in calling immoral acts wrong—lest we fall and do likewise.

I don’t get the impression this was intentional, but I’m almost glad of that. I know fellow writers who profess the name of Christ who have decided to write basically secular fiction with a subtle Christian worldview, perhaps by throwing in a church-goer, but I hope this is not what they had in mind, nor what this author intended. When it comes to love, faith, and morality, the characters, if not the author, clearly speak of things they lack understanding of, at least not of the truth.

Unlike what the characters in this story understand, true love is not a feeling, but a until-death-do-you- part commitment. The only time John shows any real love is the sacrifice he makes at the end of the story. Without the commitment only found in marriage, what they shared together was a terrible lie and deception, one that stole two gifts intended for Savannah’s future husband alone—meaning a piece of her heart as well as her virginity. The results that play out almost destroy her marriage.

In real life, based on her refusal to repent, their sin also would cut off her relationship with God, if she actually had one to begin with, which is unclear. If she did, she would’ve had no business dating a non-Christian in the first place and someone should have told her so, like the nice young man from church who happened to also be in love with her.

Granted, we’re in John’s point of view and such a conversation would not be held in front of him, but no bible-believing Christian would ever support their relationship the way Savannah’s friend is shown to.  Indeed, if the young man truly loved Savannah, and truly loved the Lord, he would have felt an obligation to speak the truth and do what he could to pull her back from inevitable disaster.

While in general the characterization is dead on, not a single character that is supposed to be a Christian speaks or acts like a true believer, more like whitewashed tombs (caricatures or hypocrites if you prefer.)

Still, if biblical morality or a proper understanding of the faith doesn’t concern a reader, this is definitely an enjoyable read and relatively well written—considering the temptation at Sparks’ level to rest on his laurels and that he may not have had adequate time for revision—but it’s also a read I cannot recommend.

If you’re a big fan and just have to read it, or don’t give a twig about the bible and Christianity, I do have one suggestion. Unless huge blocks of text are your idea of an easy read, start in chapter two or the last page or two of chapter one. You can go back and re-read the monologue when it’s summarized over if you’re interested. But if you’re thinking of reading this for an on-the-ground novelization of a soldier’s experience of the war in Iraq, I must warn that you’ll be disappointed. Iraq and 9/11 are not as central to the plot as one might think and are summarized over as well.

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  1. I think the average reader will put up with some of the things you mentions–things like shifts in tense and the opening monologue. Sparks’ voice seems to be enough.

    My wife is really enjoying Sparks’ work. She has openly wondered where Mr. Sparks’ heart is regarding Christ. In the semi-biographic book where Sparks and his brother go off on a world sojourn, the issue of faith figures prominently. From what my wife told me, it sounds like both Sparks and his brother have had their struggles. Hopefully these struggles led them ultimately back into faith.

    An aside, reading Sparks’ books has been something of a catharsis for my wife. She’s married to an author who often has tight deadlines, so when she reads about Sparks’ and his wife…how they attempt to balance the demands of family, love, and writing–it helps my wife to understand and emote.

  2. Author

    It wasn’t a shift in tense in the strictest sense, just the use of present tense in the prologue and epilogue, and he handled it about as well as present tense ever is. Likewise, his voice makes the long monologue tolerable at the worst, but he uses some very long blocks of text, which frankly could have been easily solved in itself by hitting the enter key a wee bit more often.

    The standard wisdom in the business I’m aware of is, some readers, if they open a book and see a long block of text, they’ll put the book back without even reading it. He probably has the name to overcome that problem, which is why the publisher printed it. I just find the practice of selling books on name alone personally bothersome.

    The way it’s done, he excuses opening his novel with “telling” by telling us the character is hiding outside his ex-girlfriend’s house, reflecting on these things. Apparently, his publisher decided it worked, but I suspect, based on personal experience, that they would not have bought it from a lesser known author. He’s earned that trust, though, and recall I did give him a pass on this.

    The book, however, present a worldly view of morality that is contradictory to the teachings of the bible, which is why I’d rather if Sparks had no affiliation with the Church. Unbiblical, immoral teachings can be even more dangerous on the lips of one who professes the name of Christ.

    Regardless, we can always pray such individuals do find the Jesus of the bible–and are transformed by the renewing of their minds, rather than letting the immoral surrounding culture warp the faith.

    But please understand, I cannot endorse or recommend a book that promotes or winks at immorality, no matter how enjoyable, or well written, it might otherwise be.

    As an aside, I am most grateful to God that He had the wisdom to unite me in marriage to a fellow writer. We naturally understand each other and often work together in what we view as a ministry.

    Thank you for dropping in.

  3. I understand your point of view. And for the record, I certainly wasn’t implying that you should recommend Sparks’ work. I’ve not read a single line from any of his books. It just struck a chord b/c my wife has recently been reading one.

  4. Author

    Thank you. I appreciate that.

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