The Best of Me: A Novel by Nicholas Sparks (Grand Central Publishing; $25.99; 304 pages).
The Violets of March: A Novel by Sarah Jio (Plume; $15.00; 304 pages)
“He shouldn’t have come back home. He didn’t belong here, he’d never belong here.”
I had never read a story by Sacramento native Nicholas Sparks, so I had high hopes for The Best of Me, his latest novel that I downloaded as a Nook Book on my Nook Color e-reader. It starts off very promisingly, a tale of forbidden romance between the well-bred Amanda Collier and the boy from the wrong side of the tracks, Dawson Cole. Amanda and Dawson grew up in the town of Oriental, North Carolina and societal pressures kept them apart. Now it’s decades later and both of them are drawn back to Oriental to attend the funeral of Tuck, a man who was a father-figure of sorts for both of them.
Amanda has married a relatively-successful dentist and she’s a mother, but she’s never lost the feelings she had for Dawson. Dawson, who has pined for Amanda his entire life, has remained single, working on oil rigs and living in a double-wide trailer outside of New Orleans. The question raised by this story is, “Will Amanda and Dawson finally get together, even if it is late in the day in their lives (Dawson is 42); if so, what will it cost them to change their lives competely?”
Sparks writes in a calm, polite and seemingly timeless fashion, at least through the first four-fifths of the book. But it’s when the reader gets to that last fifth – in sight of the finish line – that the story falls apart like a child’s sand castle on a beach hit by a high tide. The ending is nothing less than trite, predictable and tacky; some serious readers are going to find it so bad that they may feel personally insulted.
The Best of Me starts off like a major motion picture but ends like a poor-quality “made for TV” film broadcast at 2:00 in the afternoon on a weekday. If you love hokey corn packaged as romance literature, you may like this one. For me, one Nicholas Sparks book is far more than enough.
Fortunately, The Violets of March, the debut novel from Sarah Jio is a fine antidote to having one’s hopes dashed by reading something as predictable as The Best of Me. Jio has written a story about a young woman who has it all, a fine marriage and a successful writer’s life in Manhattan, when it all falls apart. Emily Wilson’s husband suddenly leaves her for a younger model, and so she departs for some much needed rest and recuperation at her aunt’s home on Brainbridge Island in Washington State (a ferry ride from Seattle). Once there, she finds a diary that was written by her lost maternal grandmother Esther, a woman who died under mysterious circumstances at a time when the love of her life had broken her heart. (Esther, like Amanda Colllier, was married to a man that she did not actually love – a man who served as a substitute for her true love.)
All of her life Emily has been told that she looks exactly like her grandmother Esther, and she comes to find that there are some similarities in their lives. Thus, Emily becomes determined to find out exactly what happened to this woman who she never met. This is not an easy task, as no one in her mother’s family is willing to talk about what happened in the early 1940s. Readers raised in families that pride themselves on keeping their secrets deeply buried will identify with this unique story.
Kudos to Jio for fashioning a satisfying ending in which everything comes together, made all the more satisfying due to its lack of predictability. Jio does not rush events nor does she paste on a false-feeling ending to “…an unsolved family mystery and an unfinished love affair.”
The motto of Emily Wilson’s grandmother Esther was, “True love lives on.” So does good writing and with The Violets of March, Sarah Jio shows that she’s a writer to watch.
A review copy of The Violets of March was provided by the publisher. The reviewer paid, unfortunately, for the Nook Book edition of The Best of Me. (Spark’s novel is sometimes entertaining while one’s reading it, but the elements of the story simply don’t add up or ring true. In retrospect, there are simply too many improbable and implausible events which precede the groaningly awful ending.)