“See Me,” by Nicholas Sparks. (Grand Central)

The novels of Nicholas Sparks — like the novelist himself — have attained iconic status. Aside from his massive sales and popular movies, his canon was the subject of a joke in the latest season of “Portlandia,” surely a sign of cultural currency. During an episode called “Dead Pets,” Pussy Riot-like agitators reclaim taxidermy specimens and inter them in a field, with one person telling a stuffed marmot, “Never again will you be behind a counter, your head sitting over an espresso machine, while somebody reads a Nicholas Sparks book.”

“While somebody reads a Nicholas Sparks book. . . . ” — so much said, so much left unsaid. Everyone understands that reading Nicholas Sparks is a cliche. But why is everyone reading Nicholas Sparks?

It is a question worth asking this week with the release of “See Me,” a new romantic thriller from the author whose novels such as “The Notebook” and “A Walk to Remember” have made tens of millions of readers swoon.

“See Me” starts as a classic tale of a couple struggling to overcome their mismatched backgrounds. Colin Hancock is prone to fits of rage and forays into petty crime, but settled in Wilmington, N.C., he’s trying to walk a straight-and-narrow path back and forth from punishing workouts at the gym to tiring shifts at a bar. Maria Sanchez, whose Mexican immigrant parents run a popular restaurant, is a Duke-educated lawyer with a great job and a peaceful life — at least on the surface.

Colin and Maria meet cute when he helps her with a flat tire in the middle of a rainstorm, and then she spots him bartending when she is out with her sister. From their initial nervous conversation — lots of “Heys,” “Likes” and “Okays” — grow long, oh so very long passages explaining Colin’s passion for mixed martial arts, a lead-up to the pair’s salsa-dancing date and some dull goings-on at Maria’s law practice. Before you can say, “Deny thy father and refuse thy name,” this Romeo and Juliet surmount all their apparent incompatibilities, even managing a stolen night of carnal passion without angering Maria’s stereotypically conservative Mexican parents.

But, unfortunately, readers will find their own progress slowed by a number of frustrating questions. Why is Colin so damaged, and if we’re never going to learn more about his past, why refer to it so frequently? If Maria is so smart and focused on her future, why is she so easily swayed by “the most handsome man” she’s ever seen?

As the mystery elements of the plot develop, these weaknesses only increase. Someone keeps leaving dead roses in Maria’s car, sending her threatening notes and finally targeting her family’s home in his rifle sights. Since Sparks devotes half of this book to an awkward courtship, it is even more awkward when the uneasy lovers start trying to solve the puzzle of who would kill Maria’s parents’ dog and then stalk them.

Worse, all that intrigue turns out to be disconnected from Colin and Maria. If their ho-hum romance had been a red herring, I might have cheered — what a clever way of Sparks to send up his usual style and show us a bit of his darker side. But their relationship remains center stage all the way to the last “Okay,” and I found myself wondering what was so mysterious about a workmanlike romance novel.

Bethanne Patrick is a contributing editor to the Literary Hub.


By Nicholas Sparks

Grand Central. 486 pp. $27