AT FIRST SIGHT

By Nicholas Sparks

Warner Books. 277 pp. $24.95

Nicholas Sparks, the author of such blockbusters as "The Notebook," "Message in a Bottle" and "Nights in Rodanthe," has gained almost mythic status among female readers, and among moviegoers as well. Three of his books have been made into films. His international bestsellers are published in 30 languages.

Which has me wondering if I should learn a few new languages. Perhaps he's better in, say, Tagalog or Uzbek. Setting aside the writing for a moment -- readers can sometimes forgive even the purplest prose if a writer constructs a compelling plot -- here's what we get in Sparks's new novel, "At First Sight": Jeremy Marsh doesn't trust his fiancee, Lexie Darnell, who is pregnant with his child. He sees her holding hands with a former love interest who is now dating Lexie's best friend, who shortly after the hand-holding incident mysteriously disappears. Jeremy begins to receive frightening anonymous e-mails about Lexie's fidelity. They discover that their unborn child is suffering from a rare condition called amniotic band syndrome and could be born with abnormalities. Did I mention the psychic grandmother?

Sparks is so calculating in his desire to appeal to female readers that much of the novel reads like a man thinks a woman thinks a man thinks: "Like most men, he assumed that hormones were the explanation for every emotional outburst, but in this instance it really seemed to be true." Sparks seems to have fashioned Jeremy, who was also the main character of his previous novel, "True Believer," by steeping himself in back issues of Cosmopolitan and Redbook: "But if there was one thing he'd learned from his first marriage, it was never to complain about the frequency of sex. In this, men and women were different. Women sometimes wanted; men always needed."

Throughout the book, as Jeremy struggles to understand Lexie, examining their relationship from every possible angle, readers are subjected to the literary equivalent of Chinese water torture. Jeremy is meant to be a sensitive metrosexual, but he usually sounds like a peevish dork.

"Still, there were some things that took getting used to. For example, now that theirs was a permanent arrangement, Jeremy wasn't sure how much cuddling he was expected to do. While Lexie seemed content to cuddle constantly, Jeremy could think of other more gratifying forms of intimacy. Still, he wanted to keep her happy. Which meant . . . what? How much was enough? Did they have to cuddle every night? How long? And in what position? Was he supposed to nuzzle too? He was doing his best to figure out all the intricacies of Lexie's desires, but it was confusing."

And their relationship! It's trying to be tormented and turbulent, but it comes off as tedious and . . . well, gooey: "The gloomy weather did nothing to dampen the renewed passion Lexie and Jeremy felt for each other. On the night he'd returned, they made love with an intensity that surprised them both, and he could vividly recall the electric feel of her skin against his own. It was as if, in their lovemaking, they were trying to erase all of the pain and betrayals, the secrets and anger, of the past few months."

Oh, if only they would pause long enough in their lovemaking to erase some of the pain of reading this. I enjoy a good romance as much as the next gal, but this isn't one. And the author's clumsy foreshadowing in the final paragraph of most chapters is maddening: "When he looked at Lexie now, he knew he had never cared for anyone as deeply. What he didn't know, what he couldn't know, was that the hardest days were yet to come." Harder still for those who read about it.