The Notebook

Between Friday night and Saturday night, I watched the movie The Notebook.

I think I’ve recovered.

GREAT love story. But I really can’t recommend the movie. Unless you are the type who enjoys sobbing, it is best to avoid it. Perhaps the book is more manageable?

I’m not sure how this movie got on my Netflix queue in the first place. I definitely have no idea how it made it to the top of the queue, but it just showed up here the other day. There was no way on earth I was going to make Bill watch this movie. It had chick flick written all over it (in big red lipstick letters, really). I was going to save it for when he went out of town (just a little jaunt to Afghanistan), but that trip was canceled. I started watching it while waiting for him to get home from work late Friday night, and finished it Saturday night while he read a book in another room with sound-blocking headphones on.

I didn’t spare him the details though. I took two breaks to interrupt his reading to go to him, crying, to tell him what was happening in the movie. Honestly, by the end, I wanted to jump off a bridge to spare myself the emotional upheaval.

Now, here is where I talk about why the movie made me cry, but wherein I reveal all the “secrets” of the movie, so don’t read it if you don’t want full disclosure.

I have never read the book, but in the movie, there is an air of mystery about who these people are and why they behave they way they do. Since I correctly guessed very early on what was going on, I don’t really think this mystery is crucial or even necessary to the point of the story.

There is no plot. There is an old man reading from a notebook to an old woman. They are in a nursing home. Throughout the course of the day, with a few interruptions for meals, doctors and a nap, the man recounts a tale of a young man meeting and pursuing a young woman. They fall deeply in love, but are wrenched apart by the young woman’s parents who leave their summer retreat, return home, send the young woman off to college faraway, and fail to deliver the 365 love letters he wrote to her over the course of a year. She goes on, meets another man, falls in love and gets engaged. He (the first young man) goes off to war (WWII), comes home, buys a rundown home and renovates it the way he promised her he would. Even though he learns she loves another, his heart is broken and he lives alone, continuing his work on this home he builds for her. His work on the home makes the newspaper, she sees the article and goes to him, and after much angst, decides she really loves him after all, and so they live happily ever after.

That part of the story is actually just a basic love story. Change the names, the dates, the places and a few details, and it could be anybody’s love story. Which of us has a gentle beginning to our own love? Some amount of conflict, distress and “overcoming great odds” or at least interesting coincidences seem to hallmark the onset (and sometimes the middles) of most marriages.

And although I may find these stories sweet and interesting, I am too old to find them overly sentimental. This part of the story did not make me sob.

The telling of this narration is punctuated by scenes of the old couple. It is obvious that the woman is not quite with it, yet she seems familiar with the story and keeps asking if she’s heard it before. He says yes. In fact, it is the story of their love. She has dementia and no longer recognizes her husband. Every day he reads to her from this notebook, which in fact, she wrote herself in what was obviously the early stages of her illness for the first page says, “Read this to me, and I will come back to you.”

Since I am so old, this is the part of the story that touches me deeply. The crux of the story comes in the afternoon when their adult daughters, a son-in-law (?), and two grandchildren come to visit. They are introduced as his children. Likely, experience has taught them that the confusion and upset of telling her the facts about these strangers’ relation to her is not worth it. After an awkward pause, she goes in for a nap. The daughters turn to dad and plead for him to leave the nursing home. Mom doesn’t recognize us anymore. We need you. We’ll take turns visiting her. Compelling arguments, but dad is resolute. “That’s my sweetheart in there,” he says.

For better, for worse. In sickness and in health. These are the vows we make. But in this era where we regard as a noble act putting someone else out of our own misery, it is surprising to see these promises taken so seriously. Despite the seeming hopelessness of his day, the purposelessness of his life in spending time with a woman who thinks he is a stranger, what else should we expect him to do? As a wife, I would want my husband to do as much. As a daughter, I can not fathom asking my father or my father-in-law to leave his wife for my sake. This tough choice is grandly heroic, but isn’t that what we expect of our true loves? I want my knight in shining armor to rush in and defend me from danger, but usually, the battle is not a swift one. I also want him there to patiently help me time and time again against the ongoing struggles of daily existence in this valley of tears.

And so, by evening, he recounts to his demented wife the story of the agonizing moment of choice between the life she is expected to live and the man she loves, and the old woman suddenly realizes it is their story. She recognizes her dementia, apologizes for it, asks how long they have. “Last time, it was less than 5 minutes,” he says. They embrace; they dance; and then as suddenly as she came, she is gone again. But those few minutes of love are worth the hours of labor.

And so this is the end of their love. Although the movie seems to tell the tale of their love’s beginning, it is really the story of their love’s end. Sweetly, he goes to her some time later in the middle of the night. She awakens and recognizes him. He slides next to her on the hospital bed, they fall asleep, and together die peacefully. A perfect, if not overly sentimental, conclusion. And except for the emotional trauma for our children of losing two parents at once, is this not the ending we all wish?

There you have it. A wonderful love story, but an emotionally draining movie. If anyone has read the book, I’d like to know if it is similar or if the agony is more gently dispersed throughout.