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Read by Mela Lee
Read by Will Collyer
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1996 was the year that changed everything for Maggie Dawes. Sent away at sixteen to live with an aunt she barely knew in Ocracoke, a remote village on North Carolina’s Outer Banks, she could think only of the friends and family she left behind . . . until she met Bryce Trickett, one of the few teenagers on the island. Handsome, genuine, and newly admitted to West Point, Bryce showed her how much there was to love about the wind-swept beach town—and introduced her to photography, a passion that would define the rest of her life.
By 2019, Maggie is a renowned travel photographer. She splits her time between running a successful gallery in New York and photographing remote locations around the world. But this year she is unexpectedly grounded over Christmas, struggling to come to terms with a sobering medical diagnosis. Increasingly dependent on a young assistant, she finds herself becoming close to him.
As they count down the last days of the season together, she begins to tell him the story of another Christmas, decades earlier—and the love that set her on a course she never could have imagined.
I'd like to thank you for downloading the ebook version of my latest novel, The Wish. It's a very special book to me, as it combines two deep-seated passions of mine: a fascination with travel (I've actually included some of the photos from my travels in this ebook edition), and my profound attachment to North Carolina, where all of my novels have been set.
In the past eighteen years, beginning with the around-the-world trip documented in my memoir, Three Weeks with My Brother, I've had the privilege of traveling to some of the most remarkable places in the world, each unforgettable for its natural geography, rare cultural history, or astounding wildlife. However, the best part of any trip is coming home…and small-town North Carolina has been my beloved home for decades now. I never tire of its slow rhythms, easygoing charm, and varied landscapes.
On the first page of The Wish, you will meet Maggie Dawes, a New York–based travel photographer who has made a career of capturing images from every corner of the globe. But the origins of her extraordinary career lie in a summer when she was just sixteen years old and found herself exiled to a tiny island off the coast of North Carolina in the off-season. Ocracoke Island is a tiny resort destination, windswept and beautiful, but quite isolated during the winter…Nonetheless it is there, among the hardy island folk, that she finds not only a first love that marks her forever, but also family and a passion that will become her career.
I am attached to all of the books I've written for different reasons, but I do think this might be one of my very best. You will cry, but hopefully you'll also laugh, and come away deeply satisfied from this story of a woman trying to reconcile what "might have been" with the way things turned out for her. It's a challenge we all face as humans—to find and express love, in the time and in the ways that our often-unpredictable lives allow.
Thank you again, and happy reading,
This year marks my twenty-fifth anniversary as a published author—a milestone I certainly couldn't have imagined when I first held a copy of The Notebook in my hands. At the time, I honestly didn't know if I'd ever come up with a good story idea again, much less whether I would be able to support myself and my family on a writer's earnings.
The fact that I've been able to keep doing what I love for a quarter of a century is a testament to the brilliant and stalwart group of supporters who advise, celebrate, nag, comfort, strategize, and advocate on my behalf 24/7. Many of them have been by my side for decades. Take Theresa Park, for example: we met in our twenties, worked maniacally through our thirties and forties while raising families and making movies together, and are now trying to live wisely and productively in our fifties. We are friends, partners, and fellow travelers on the road of life, our relationship having weathered countless highs and lows in careers that have never, ever been dull.
I've known the entire team at Park & Fine for so long that I can hardly imagine publishing a book or marketing a film without them. They are without question the most knowledgeable, sophisticated, intrepid group of publishing representatives in the industry—Abigail Koons, Emily Sweet, Alexandra Greene, Andrea Mai, Pete Knapp, Ema Barnes, and Fiona Furnari bring excellence and expertise to everything they do on the fiction side; their colleagues who work in the world of nonfiction are every bit their equal. Celeste, I was thrilled to get to know you when you combined forces with Theresa—and could tell right away why you two were such a perfect fit!
Grand Central Publishing continues to be my home, all these years on. And although the faces have changed throughout the decades, the ethos of decency, kindness, and partnership with authors has been a constant. Michael Pietsch has led the company through countless evolutions and challenges with integrity and strategic foresight; publisher Ben Sevier has been a wonderful manager and architect of an evolving business; and editor in chief Karen Kosztolnyik has proven to be a gentle and encouraging champion of my work, rigorous and yet respectful with her editorial pen. Brian McLendon, your unflagging efforts to reinvent the look and messaging of my books, year after year, deserve an award—my team loves your irrepressible enthusiasm, which, along with the indefatigable Amanda Pritzker's efforts, keeps my books front of mind and perpetually ripe for discovery. Beth de Guzman, you are among the few people who have been with my publisher since the very first book, and your tireless work to keep my backlist fresh and appealing is one of the secrets to my success. Matthew Ballast is the Zen master of author publicity, soft-spoken and unflappable, and his colleague Staci Burt is the savvy, responsive publicist who fears neither COVID, unpredictable tour schedules, nor cranky authors. And to art director Albert Tang and my longtime cover designer Flag: you guys are geniuses, managing to surprise me with striking, beautiful covers year after year.
Catherine Olim deserves a medal of valor for all of the crises she's defused and the generous publicity she's garnered for my work—a plainspoken, fearless coach and warrior, she is never afraid to give me tips on my on-screen performances or protect me from unfair critics. LaQuishe "Q" Wright is the absolute star of the social media world, with instincts, relationships, and strategic savvy unparalleled in that mercurial and rapidly changing world. She loves her work, and her star-studded client roster benefits from her passion. Mollie Smith, is there a designer and fan outreach expert with a better feel for design AND audiences? You are the whole package and, together with Q, have always steered my public outreach with deft assurance.
My longtime Hollywood representative, Howie Sanders of Anonymous Content, has been my wise advisor and deeply loyal friend for decades. I treasure his advice and admire his integrity; after everything we have been through together, my trust in him is complete. Scott Schwimer has been my relentless (yet charming!) advocate and negotiator for twenty-five years, and he's definitely seen it all—he knows me and the ins and outs of my career like few others, and he is an invaluable member of my close-knit brain trust.
In my personal life, I have been blessed with a circle of friends and family whose love and support I can rely on each and every day. In no particular order, I'd like to thank Pat and Bill Mills; the Thoene clan, which includes Mike, Parnell, Matt, Christie, Dan, Kira, Amanda, and Nick; the Sparks clan, including Dianne, Chuck, Monte, Gail, Sandy, Todd, Elizabeth, Sean, Adam, Nathan, and Josh; and finally Bob, Debbie, & Cody and Cole Lewis. I'd also like to acknowledge the following friends, all of whom mean so much to me: Victoria Vodar; Jonathan and Stephanie Arnold; Todd and Gretchen Lanman; Kim and Eric Belcher; Lee, Sandy, and Max Minshull; Adriana Lima; David and Morgan Shara; David Geffen; Jeannie and Pat Armentrout; Tia and Brandon Shaver; Christie Bonacci; Drew and Brittany Brees; Buddy and Wendy Stallings; John and Stephanie Zannis; Jeanine Kaspar; Joy Lenz; Dwight Carlbom; David Wang; Missy Blackerby; Ken Gray; John Hawkins and Michael Smith; the Van Wie family (Jeff, Torri, Ana, Audrey, and Ava); Jim Tyler; Chris Matteo; Rick Muench; Paul du Vair; Bob Jacob; Eric Collins; and last but not least, my wonderful children who mean the world to me. Miles, Ryan, Landon, Lexie, and Savannah—I love you all.
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'Tis the Season
Whenever December rolled around, Manhattan transformed itself into a city that Maggie didn't always recognize. Tourists thronged the shows on Broadway and flooded the sidewalks outside department stores in Midtown, forming a slow-moving river of pedestrians. Boutiques and restaurants overflowed with shoppers clutching bags, Christmas music filtered from hidden speakers, and hotel lobbies sparkled with decorations. The Rockefeller Center Christmas tree was lit by multicolored bulbs and the flashes of thousands of iPhones, and crosstown traffic, never speedy in the best of times, became so jammed up that it was often quicker to walk than to take a cab. But walking had its own challenges; frigid wind frequently whipped between the buildings, necessitating thermal underwear, plentiful fleece, and jackets zipped to the collars.
Maggie Dawes, who considered herself a free spirit consumed by wanderlust, had always loved the idea of a New York Christmas, albeit in a look how pretty postcard kind of way. In reality, like a lot of New Yorkers, she did her best to avoid Midtown during the holidays. Instead, she either stayed close to her home in Chelsea or, more commonly, fled to warmer climes. As a travel photographer, she sometimes thought of herself less as a New Yorker and more as a nomad who happened to have a permanent address in the city. In a notebook she kept in the drawer of her nightstand, she'd compiled a list of more than a hundred places she still wanted to visit, some of them so obscure or remote that even reaching them would be a challenge.
Since dropping out of college twenty years ago, she'd been adding to the list, noting places that sparked her imagination for one reason or another even as her travels enabled her to cross out other destinations. With a camera slung over her shoulder, she'd visited every continent, more than eighty-two countries, and forty-three of the fifty states. She'd taken tens of thousands of photographs, from images of wildlife in the Okavango Delta in Botswana to shots of the aurora borealis in Lapland. There were photographs taken as she'd hiked the Inca Trail, others from the Skeleton Coast in Namibia, still more among the ruins of Timbuktu. Twelve years ago, she'd learned to scuba dive and had spent ten days documenting marine life in Raja Ampat; four years ago, she'd hiked to the famous Paro Taktsang, or Tiger's Nest, a Buddhist monastery built into a cliffside in Bhutan with panoramic views of the Himalayas.
Others had often marveled at her adventures, but she'd learned that adventure is a word with many connotations, not all of them good. A case in point was the adventure she was on now—that's how she sometimes described it to her Instagram followers and YouTube subscribers—the one that kept her largely confined to either her gallery or her small two-bedroom apartment on West Nineteenth Street, instead of venturing to more exotic locales. The same adventure that led to occasional thoughts of suicide.
Oh, she'd never actually do it. The thought terrified her, and she'd admitted as much in one of the many videos she'd created for YouTube. For almost ten years, her videos had been rather ordinary as far as photographers' posts went; she'd described her decision-making process when taking pictures, offered numerous Photoshop tutorials, and reviewed new cameras and their many accessories, usually posting two or three times a month. Those YouTube videos, in addition to her Instagram posts and Facebook pages and the blog on her website, had always been popular with photography geeks while also burnishing her professional reputation.
Three and a half years ago, however, on a whim, she'd posted a video to her YouTube channel about her recent diagnosis, one that had nothing to do with photography. The video, a rambling, unfiltered description of the fear and uncertainty she suddenly felt when she learned she had stage IV melanoma, probably shouldn't have been posted at all. But what she imagined would be a lonely voice echoing back at her from the empty reaches of the internet somehow managed to catch the attention of others. She wasn't sure why or how, but that video—of all the ones she'd ever posted—had attracted a trickle, then a steady stream, and finally a deluge of views, comments, questions, and upvotes from people who had never heard of her or her work as a photographer. Feeling as though she had to respond to those who'd been moved by her plight, she'd posted another video regarding her diagnosis that became even more popular. Since then, about once a month, she'd continued to post videos in the same vein, mainly because she felt she had no choice but to continue. In the past three years, she'd discussed various treatments and how they'd made her feel, sometimes even displaying the scars from her surgery. She talked about radiation burns and nausea and hair loss and wondered openly about the meaning of life. She mused about her fear of dying and speculated on the possibility of an afterlife. They were serious issues, but maybe to stave off her own depression when discussing such a miserable subject, she did her best to keep the videos as light in tone as possible. She supposed that was part of the reason for their popularity, but who really knew? The only certainty was that somehow, almost reluctantly, she'd become the star of her own reality web series, one that had begun with hope but had slowly narrowed to focus on a single inevitable ending.
And—perhaps unsurprisingly—as the grand finale approached, her viewership exploded even more.
* * *
In the first Cancer Video—that's how she mentally referred to them, as opposed to her Real Videos—she stared into the camera with a wry grin and said, "Right off the bat, I hated it. Then it started growing on me."
She knew it was probably in poor taste to joke about her illness, but the whole thing struck her as absurd. Why her? At the time, she was thirty-six years old, she exercised regularly, and she followed a reasonably healthy diet. There was no history of cancer in her family. She'd grown up in cloudy Seattle and lived in Manhattan, which ruled out a history of sunbathing. She'd never visited a tanning salon. None of it made any sense, but that was the point about cancer, wasn't it? Cancer didn't discriminate; it just happened to the unlucky, and after a while she'd finally accepted that the better question was really Why NOT her? She wasn't special; to that point in her life, there'd been times when she considered herself interesting or intelligent or even pretty, but the word special had never entered her mind.
When she'd received her diagnosis, she would have sworn she was in perfect health. A month earlier, she'd visited Vaadhoo Island in the Maldives, on a photo shoot for Condé Nast. She'd traveled there hoping to capture the bioluminescence just offshore that made ocean waves glow like starlight, as if lit from within. Sea plankton was responsible for the spectral, spectacular light, and she'd allotted extra time to shoot some images for personal use, perhaps for eventual sale in her gallery.
She was scouting a mostly empty beach near her hotel in midafternoon with a camera in hand, trying to envision the shot she aimed to take once evening descended. She wanted to capture a hint of the shoreline—with perhaps a boulder in the foreground—the sky, and, of course, the waves just as they were cresting. She'd spent more than an hour taking different shots from different angles and various locations on the beach when a couple strolled past her, holding hands. Lost in her work, she barely registered their presence.
A few moments later, while scanning the line where the waves were breaking offshore through her viewfinder, she heard the woman's voice behind her. She spoke English, but with a distinctly German accent.
"Excuse me," the woman said. "I can see that you're busy and I am sorry to bother you."
Maggie lowered her camera. "Yes?"
"It's a little difficult to say this, but have you had that dark spot on the back of your shoulder examined?"
Maggie frowned, trying without success to see the spot between the straps of her bathing suit that the woman was referring to. "I didn't know I had a dark spot there…" She squinted at the woman in confusion. "And why are you so interested?"
The woman, fiftyish with short gray hair, nodded. "I should perhaps introduce myself. I'm Dr. Sabine Kessel," she said. "I'm a dermatologist in Munich. The spot looks abnormal."
Maggie blinked. "You mean like cancer?"
"I don't know," the woman said, her expression cautious. "But if I were you, I'd have it examined as soon as possible. It could be nothing, of course."
Or it could be serious, Dr. Kessel didn't have to add.
Though it took five nights to achieve what she wanted from the shoot, Maggie was pleased with the raw files. She would work on them extensively in digital postproduction—the real art in photography these days almost always emerged in post—but she already knew the results would be spectacular. In the meantime, and though she tried not to worry about it, she also made an appointment with Dr. Snehal Khatri, a dermatologist on the Upper East Side, four days after her return to the city.
The spot was biopsied in early July 2016, and afterward she was sent for additional testing. She had MRI and PET scans done at Memorial Sloan Kettering hospital later that same month. After the results had come in, Dr. Khatri sat her down in the examination room, where he quietly and seriously informed her that she had stage IV melanoma. Later that day, she was introduced to an oncologist named Leslie Brodigan, who would oversee her care. In the aftermath of these meetings, Maggie did her own research on the internet. Though Dr. Brodigan had told her that general statistics meant very little when it came to predicting outcomes for a particular individual, Maggie couldn't help fixating on the numbers. The survival rate after five years for those diagnosed with stage IV melanoma, she learned, was less than fifteen percent.
In stunned disbelief, Maggie made her first Cancer Video the following day.
* * *
At her second appointment, Dr. Brodigan—a vibrant blue-eyed blonde who seemed to personify the term good health—explained everything about her condition again, since the whole process had been so overwhelming that Maggie could remember only bits and pieces of their first meeting. Essentially, having stage IV melanoma meant that the cancer had metastasized not only to distant lymph nodes but to some of her other organs as well, in her case both her liver and her stomach. The MRI and PET scans had found the cancerous growths invading healthier parts of her body like an army of ants devouring food laid out on a picnic table.
Long story short: The next three and a half years were a blur of treatment and recovery, with occasional flashes of hope illuminating dark tunnels of anxiety. She had surgery to remove her infected lymph nodes and the metastases in her liver and stomach. The surgery was followed by radiation, which was excruciating, turning her skin black in places and leaving behind nasty scars to go with the ones she'd collected in the operating room. She also learned there were different kinds of melanoma, even for those with stage IV, which led to different treatment options. In her case, that meant immunotherapy, which seemed to work for a couple of years, until it finally didn't. Then, last April, she had begun chemotherapy and continued it for months, hating how it made her feel but convinced that it had to be effective. How could it not work, she wondered, since it seemed to be killing every other part of her? These days, she barely recognized herself in the mirror. Food nearly always tasted too bitter or too salty, which made it hard to eat, and she'd dropped more than twenty pounds from her already petite frame. Her oval-shaped brown eyes now appeared sunken and oversize above her protruding cheekbones, her face more like skin stretched over a skull. She was always cold and wore thick sweaters even in her overheated apartment. She'd lost all her dark brown hair, only to see it slowly grow back in patches, lighter in color and as fine as a baby's; she'd taken to wearing a kerchief or hat almost all the time. Her neck had become so spindly and fragile-looking that she wrapped it in a scarf to avoid glimpsing it in mirrors.
A little more than a month ago, at the beginning of November, she had undergone another round of CAT and PET scans, and in December, she'd met again with Dr. Brodigan. The doctor had been more subdued than usual, although her eyes brimmed with compassion. There, she'd told Maggie that while more than three years of treatment had slowed the disease at times, its progression had never quite stopped. When Maggie asked what other treatment options were available, the doctor had gently turned her attention to the quality of the life Maggie had remaining.
It was her way of telling Maggie that she was going to die.
* * *
Maggie had opened the gallery more than nine years ago with another artist named Trinity, who used most of the space for his giant and eclectic sculptures. Trinity's real name was Fred Marshburn and they'd met at an opening for another artist's show, the kind of event Maggie seldom attended. Trinity was already wildly successful at that point and had long toyed with the idea of opening his own gallery; he didn't, however, have any desire to actually manage the gallery, nor did he want to spend any time there. Because they'd hit it off, and because her photographs in no way competed with his work, they'd eventually made a deal. In exchange for her managing the business of the gallery, she would earn a modest salary and could also display a selection of her own work. At the time, it was more about prestige—she could tell people she had her own gallery!—than it was about the money Trinity paid her. In the first year or two, she sold only a few prints of her own.
Because Maggie was still traveling extensively at the time—more than a hundred days a year, on average—the actual day-to-day running of the gallery fell to a woman named Luanne Sommers. When Maggie hired her, Luanne was a wealthy divorcée with grown children. Her experience was limited to an amateur's passion for collecting and an expert's eye for finding bargains at Neiman Marcus. On the plus side, she dressed well; she was responsible, conscientious, and willing to learn; and she had no qualms about the fact that she'd earn little more than minimum wage. As she put it, her alimony was enough to allow her to retire in luxury, but there were only so many lunches a woman could do without going crazy.
Luanne turned out to be a natural at sales. In the beginning, Maggie had briefed her on the technical elements of all of her prints, as well as the story behind each particular shot, which was often as interesting to buyers as the image itself. Trinity's sculptures, which utilized assorted materials—canvas, metal, plastic, glue, and paint, in addition to items collected from junkyards, deer antlers, pickle jars, and cans—were original enough to inspire spirited discussion. He was already an established critical darling, and his pieces moved regularly despite their staggering prices. But the gallery didn't advertise or feature many guest artists, so the work itself was fairly low-key. There were days when only a handful of people entered the premises, and they were able to close the gallery the last three weeks of the year. It was—for Maggie, Trinity, and Luanne—an arrangement that worked well for a long time.
But two things happened to change all that. First, Maggie's Cancer Videos lured new people to the gallery. Not the usual seasoned contemporary art or photography enthusiasts, but tourists from places like Tennessee and Ohio, people who'd begun to follow Maggie on Instagram and YouTube because they felt a connection to her. Some of them had become actual fans of her photography, but a lot of them simply wanted to meet her or buy one of her signed prints as a keepsake. The phone began to ring off the hook with orders from random locations around the country, and additional orders poured in through the website. It was all Maggie and Luanne could do to keep up, and last year, they'd made the decision to keep the gallery open through the holidays because the crowds kept coming. Then Maggie learned she'd soon have to begin chemotherapy, which meant she wouldn't be able to help at the gallery for months. It was clear that they needed to hire an additional employee, and when Maggie broached the subject with Trinity, he agreed on the spot. As fate would have it, the following day, a young man named Mark Price walked into the gallery and asked to speak with her, an event that at the time struck her as almost too good to be true.
* * *
Mark Price was a recent college graduate who could have passed for a high schooler. Maggie initially assumed he was another "cancer groupie," but she was only partially correct. He admitted he had become familiar with her work through her popular online presence—he was especially fond of her videos, he volunteered—but he'd also come in with a résumé. He explained that he was looking for employment and the idea of working in the art world strongly appealed to him. Art and photography, he'd added, allowed for the communication of new ideas, often in ways that words did not.
- "Sparks has definitely mastered the art of love.”—Associated Press
- “Sparks is a poet . . . a master.”—Philadelphia Inquirer
- “Nicholas Sparks is one of the best-known writers in America and overseas for good reason: He has written stories that reveal the yearning for our most prized possession: love.”—Mobile Register
- "Sparks knows how to tug at readers' heartstrings."—Chicago Sun Times
- "Sparks is a masterful storyteller who remains at the top of his game.”—Bookreporter.com
- On Sale
- Oct 19, 2021
- Hachette Audio