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Book Review

Love in an Eden of Small-Town Folks

THE RESCUE, by Nicholas Sparks, Warner Books, $22.95, 339 pages

September 19, 2000|MICHAEL HARRIS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

This may be an age of innovation, but Nicholas Sparks' romances prove that there's commercial mileage left in the oldest plot lines. "The Rescue" is a story of boy meets girl, loses girl, gets girl back--or, to change the perspective, damsel in distress meets knight, is disillusioned by him, then perceives that he needed rescuing even more than she did.

This change in perspective is crucial to the appeal of Sparks ("The Notebook," "Message in a Bottle"), a male novelist who pitches his stories to the female reader. It isn't just that he enters more deeply into the point of view of Denise Holton, the heroine of "The Rescue," than into that of Taylor McAden, the hero. The values he espouses tilt Denise's way as well.

She is a single mother with a 4-year-old son, Kyle, the result of a brief affair with a man who disclaimed any responsibility. Kyle has a learning disability: He speaks and understands speech at a 2-year-old level. To care for him full time, Denise has quit her teaching job in Atlanta and moved to tiny Edenton, N.C., where she can live in a ramshackle house she inherited from her grandparents. She works late shifts as a waitress at a diner whose owner lets Kyle sleep in a back room, but her earnings barely pay the bills.

Taylor is awed by her devotion and sacrifice. "She seemed to be one of a vanishing breed," he thinks, "a stark contrast to those who were always chasing, running, on the go, searching for personal fulfillment and self-esteem. So many people these days--believed that these things could come only from work, not from parenting--that having children had nothing to do with raising them."

And Denise is impressed by Taylor. A volunteer firefighter, he rescues Kyle from a swamp where the boy has wandered after Denise, swerving her car to avoid a deer, hit a tree and knocked herself out on the steering wheel. Later he proves not only brave but also sensitive: He treats Kyle--and this is almost as important to Denise as saving the boy's life--like any normal child.

It doesn't hurt that Taylor thinks Denise "radiated a natural beauty" or that Denise notices Taylor's rugged good looks and "an acute but unthreatening perceptiveness in his steady gaze." A contractor, he rehangs her cupboard doors and fixes her leaky sink, and he treats her as any gentleman might treat a lady.

Denise, at 29, has shelved the very idea of romance, and Taylor, at 36, is a bachelor whose few attachments have fizzled--a mystery to his mother, Judy, and his best friends, Mitch and Melissa Johnson, who think it's high time he settled down. But fall in love they do, with seemingly irresistible momentum.

Then Taylor withdraws, into work and hunting trips and daredevil exploits at bridge accidents and forest fires. Denise begins to heed what others have told her: Taylor's father died in a fire when he was 9, and he holds himself responsible. Why? She questions him but gets nowhere: It's the kind of thing stoic good ol' boys don't talk about.

As a stylist, Sparks is adequate at best. He's capable of calling a storm "one fell swoop of Mother Nature." He's prone to sententiousness: "Youth offers the promise of happiness, but life offers the realities of grief." His Edenton is an uncomplicated paradise of down-home folks. Even his action scenes are newspaper-flat.

Fortunately, he's somewhat better as a storyteller. The action in "The Rescue" is timed to keep the domesticity from cloying. The banter of Judy, Mitch and Melissa offsets the earnestness that's Sparks' real stock in trade: his validation of his readers' belief that relationships not only matter but matter more than anything else. Denise knows this. And it's something Taylor has to learn, even if this means spitting out his terrible secret at last.

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