Sparks still has surprises

Nicholas Sparks' fans know his novels are love stories, are set in small towns in Eastern North Carolina, have well-defined characters and will have a conclusion that is concealed until near the end of the book.

Sparks is known for his surprises, but he has never dished out as many to devouring fans as he does in his newest novel, "The Choice."

Right when you've mentally plotted the book's path, you discover you've got the map turned upside down.

No two Sparks books are alike -- one of the reasons his readership is still growing -- although they all end in one of three ways: happily, sadly or bittersweetly.

At a book signing in Cary two years ago, a female fan -- new book in hand -- said she was mad at Sparks for the death of a primary character in "At First Sight."

"Really," he said, feigning surprise. "I've never heard that one before. But you know me, I'll kill off anybody."

He went on to explain how love stories need separation to build intensity and that sometimes there is a healing, but not always.

"Romeo and Juliet" wouldn't be the same if they lived happily ever after.

Sparks has killed off some of his most beloved characters and left others to live a life of unrequited love.

They've died in storms, childbirth, car accidents and illness. Other have had their lives transformed by people who are a part of their past, but can never be a part of their future.

One of the keys to Sparks' 11 consecutive best-selling novels is that readers never know which of the three endings a particular book will have. The ending in his last novel, "Dear John," wasn't apparent until the final page.

Judging by the reader comments on Sparks' Internet page, lots of readers don't think the final chapter has been written about John Tyree, as they are pleading for an unlikely sequel.

"The Choice" is set in Sparks' beloved coastal North Carolina.

Travis Parker lives in Beaufort in a waterfront home, has good friends, plenty of money and a good job.

He has a suspicion that his life is not complete, even though he is not certain if a serious relationship is what is lacking.

His new next-door neighbor, Gabby Holland, disrupts his life and their relationship brings choices that neither could have foreseen.

Ultimately, Parker is forced to answer a question that he dreads: how far is he willing to go to keep the hope of love alive?

In his first published novel, "The Notebook," Sparks explored love and aging and years later, Sparks is still exploring different aspects of love.

At a time in his career when he could turn to formulation and roll out any manuscript and still obtain best-seller fruits, he is still finding ways to surprise his readers.