Warning: Spoilers Ahead
Let me begin by saying this: I really enjoyed this movie. It was an excellent blend of romance and drama, a film about the real-life sacrifices people make to be together. This—like all Nicholas Sparks stories—is not about strong female friendship. Or any friendship. Just romance, and a contested notion of what family means.
The movie traces two love stories separated by time. The first is between Luke and Sophia—he’s a bull rider from North Carolina and she’s an art history student from New Jersey—taking place in the 21st century. The second, recounted through letters Sophia reads aloud to Alan Alda (old Ira), is between young Ira and Ruth in the 1940s-60s?? Both love stories involve vivacious women who love art and have dreams (Sophia=gallery work in NYC, Ruth=lots of babies), and simple men who want to continue their respective family legacies (Luke=bull riding, Ira=retail of some kind) in North Carolina.
Ultimately, both couples reach an impasse, and love demands sacrifices. Bull riding has taken a toll on Luke’s body and he may die if he continues. Sophia misses her flight to New York to meet him in the hospital, and they break up when he refuses to stop riding. They get back together only after he has defeated his bull nemesis and won the national championship. By then, Sophia has given up her internship.
As for our 20th century couple, Ira might have lost his penis (but he definitely lost his ability to procreate) in WWII and therefore is unable to have biological children with Ruth. They try to make it work, but Ruth is unhappy without a family. She eventually leaves him, and he plays the unbearable good guy who wants her to leave so she can be happy. But she quickly returns to him for unclear reasons (here is where a little omniscient narrating in the past would have been helpful—we only see Ruth through Ira’s loving but besotted eyes), and they just don’t dwell on their childlessness for the rest of their lives.
And here is where Nicholas Sparks’ true message shines through (and yes I’m blaming him for the whole thing): men sacrifice their comfort by tacitly/begrudgingly indulging in their partner’s passions, and women sacrifice their dreams for true love. If a woman just focuses on her love for her husband, then she will live happily ever after. With art. And there you have it–the way that love can unite people from “different worlds.”
[Fun activity: If you want to turn this movie into a drinking game, take a shot every time people are described as being from “different worlds”]
A note about my feelings towards Nicholas Sparks is in order. When one encounters one of his books or film adaptations, one does not expect a tale of female empowerment. I’m not going to fault him for not writing the book I would have written. But I do think it’s worth calling him out for creating a composite male protagonist who is the kind of guy who complains about women “friend-zoning” him. He’s the guy who thinks it’s okay to be an asshole to everyone except his beloved, who will understand how truly special he is inside and will love him just the way he is. Sparks’ work is marketed to women, but his vision of love and romance is a complete male fantasy.