Reviewed by Ian Lipke
Two by Two by Nicholas Sparks is a more than competent look at the undercurrents that swirl around the participants in a marriage that is foundering. It takes a certain personality to write successfully about such a topic. It takes a very skilled writer to ‘pull it off’. The person has to be warm and empathetic but, while sympathising, must be able to stand back and fit all the parts into the jigsaw the writer is observing. The writer must consciously decide that this will be a book that places readers right in the middle of their own prejudices and beliefs.
Nicholas Sparks wrote at least nineteen books before this one. That he knows how to tell a story, how to create tension, how to flesh out characters and display their interactions, is evident from the moment he begins to write. We admire his characterisation and the light touch he employs to direct the participants along the paths he has chosen for them. What a disparate group they are! If we ignore the characters with minor roles we have two grandparents, two women in a homosexual relationship who want to have children, we have a married couple and a former lover, and we have two children. Adding a deadly disease into the mixture certainly focuses attention on the plot, which is pretty ordinary by any standards.
It is a challenge to come to grips with the wife, Vivian. Warm and loving, cold-hearted and mercenary in turn, she fascinates. She is the epitome of beauty except when the mask slips and we see the evil that possesses her. At first she is loving on ‘date nights’ but on other occasions isolated and unreachable. She is jealous but appears to harbour a genuine love for her daughter. She shows her love through spending money, and the huge amounts she spends on material things for herself reflect the self-love that drives her. Yet when her daughter is hurt in an accident she has no thought but to rush to her daughter’s aid. She is a complex, fascinating individual.
Russ, Vivian’s husband and protagonist in this story, on the other hand is something of an infuriating puzzle. He kowtows to his wife and excuses her outrageous behaviours as being caused by himself. He appears to have no spine. I am not convinced by his sister’s declaration that he is the strongest of all of the family. That he is able to build a career from the ashes of the old, with no finance and no help from his conniving wife, while taking full responsibility for the welfare of his daughter, is unconvincing. Because he fails to stand up to his responsibilities as a man, because he becomes a quivering jelly with no coping strategies when his wife does the inevitable and leaves and because he is so blinkered as to hold the unreasonable view that she will return, he is not cast to succeed as the man in control of his destiny. His falling in love with a former mistress is understandable but the couple’s twin declarations of love and unreadiness to progress the relationship into the physical are just not believable or likely. Russ comes across as a weak man who needs a mother figure in his marriage, a role Vivian is ill-equipped to play, a role that she has no interest in playing at any time. Like some succulent he tries to hold on to her but, quixotic and shallow, she will have none of it.
There are issues concerning Vivian and Russ that continue to puzzle the reader. However, there is no ambivalence about Russ’s father. Old school, beer-swilling and tough, he says little, but his actions convey what he is thinking. There is never any doubt about this most likeable of all the characters. When Russ tells his parents that Vivian wants a divorce, it is the father who responds first: “She can’t leave.” He frowned. “She’s got a kid” (239). A little later the old man goes to the kitchen and soon after this: “I felt a tap of cold glass against my shoulder. My dad had a beer in each hand and was holding one out. “For you,” he said. “I’m in the garage if you want to talk” (241). Amid all the chatter from the women, he is the one to stand out as the champion of decency and quiet courage. There are no metrosexuals in his universe. Interestingly, he was quick to accept that his daughter, Marge, was a lesbian and he did not hesitate to welcome Marge’s partner, Liz, into the family. Open-minded, in full control of his world, competent with his hands, a man not averse to having a go, he is the antithesis of his son.
The last character to consider is the young girl, London. It’s anybody’s guess where Russ and Vivian dug up that name for their daughter. Since the book is written firmly in the romance genre, it would be expected that London would draw nothing but praise. Personally I found her to be a refreshing young girl, loaded down with activities that parents with unrealistic expectations regularly place upon their children. London is the stereotyped image that we have all seen. Often, too good to be true, she has her moments when she becomes a normal kid. She is a believable construct.
My critique of Two by Two seems harsh and derisory of the author’s attempt to supply a good yarn. But that is what he does. Somehow the story transcends the weaknesses a micro-examination defines. This is a story too good to keep quiet. It is one of those very few creations that defy analysis. I enjoyed it immensely and think that perhaps reviewers should do as I have now. Accept that the worth of a novel or other piece of good literature will rise above criticism and demand a judgment. For me, this is a wonderful book that I will return to time and time again.
by Nicholas Sparks