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Read the first chapter of "Message in a Bottle"

Message in a Bottle
Nicholas Sparks
Warner Books, $20

(CNN) -- Nicholas Sparks' follow-up effort to the wildly successful "The Notebook" is a sentimental love story of two people who are looking for a second chance at love. Sparks offers a breezy, easy read with attractive, affable lead characters. Ultimately though, "Message" lacks originality (the plot is eerily reminiscent of "Sleepless in Seattle"), sophisticated prose, or a clear, strong personal voice or perspective.

Theresa Osbourne, a 36-year-old divorcee and mother of one, is a syndicated columnist for The Boston Times. As the story begins, Theresa finds a bottle washed up on the beach where she is vacationing at Cape Cod with her editor, and best friend, Deanna. In the bottle is a poignant love letter written by a man named Garrett to his late wife, Catherine.

Theresa, so moved by Garrett's words, prints the letter in her column. The response from the article is overwhelmingly positive, including letters from others who have found similar letters written by Garrett. Theresa, unlucky in love since divorcing her unfaithful husband, decides that she must meet the man who has written the letters. She finds him in Wrightsville, North Carolina, still struggling with his wife's death. Theresa and Garrett meet and fall in love, he unaware of her knowledge of the letters.

"Message" lacks any real emotional conflict; everyone gets along swimmingly. Before you know it, Theresa and Garrett have proclaimed their undying love to one another, despite the fact that they don't appear to have anything more in common than physical attraction. Does Theresa's 12-year-old son, Kevin, resent Mom's new boyfriend? Nope, he thinks he's "cool".

The only suspenseful part concerns Garrett finding out Theresa knew about the letters all along. When the truth comes out, Garrett confronts her with this cliched clunker -- "I don't even know who you are anymore."

When Garrett visits Boston, he is depicted as the stereotypical out-of-water Southerner in the big city who feels suffocated. Meanwhile, Theresa can't leave behind her job in Boston. Can't a syndicated columnist write from anywhere in the country in this day of e-mail and fax machines?

The fact that Garrett is not completely over his late wife is evident throughout the book. It's the most genuine and heartfelt element in "Message". Unfortunately, Sparks drives the point into the ground through the use of flashbacks, nightmares, and the actual messages in the bottles.

What the story needs is a character to inject some comic relief. A few sarcastic, irreverent remarks would be a refreshing break from the sugary sweet dialogue. Garrett's father would be the perfect candidate, but he is relegated to "Don't make the same mistakes I made" talks with his son.

Die-hard romantics don't despair. Fans of "The Bridges of Madison County" or "The Horse Whisperer" will not be disappointed. "Message" is in the same vein of romantic escapism, so if you are looking for a sentimental tear-jerker to throw in the beach bag along with the Coppertone and bottled water, then look no further.

If you lean toward the more cerebral and literary, keep browsing.

-- Tom Faucett

M O R E     R E V I E W S


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