Tag Archives: love stories

Helplessly Hoping

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.

Highly recommended.

Joseph Arellano

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.)  

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Coming Up Next…

Reviews of The Best of Me: A Novel by Nicholas Sparks, and The Violets of March: A Novel by Sarah Jio.

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Other Voices, Other Rooms

American Music: A Novel by Jane Mendelsohn (Knopf, 237 pages, $23.95)

“When you’re lost in Juarez/ And it’s Easter time too/ And your gravity fails/ And negativity don’t pull you through…”   Bob Dylan (“Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues”)

“The memory was like an explosion and he was inside it, living through it and it surrounded him and slowly he breathed into it…  This was where he was headed.   He was entering someplace.   It seemed to be his life.”

This one is a brilliant and one-of-a-kind experience.   Author Jane Mendelsohn has written a novel about disorientation and jumbled lives, where people are not sure whether they are living now or in the past.   Or in the future.

“…she seemed to enter that new future and for an instant the past disappeared.”

The novel starts out with an Iraq war veteran – circa current times – being treated for his injuries by a 21-year-old physical therapist whose name is Honor.   As Honor works on the wounded soldier, whose name is Milo, she begins to feel and hear stories…  His body “is like a haunted house.”   She feels the stories in his limbs and in his bones, but bit by bit he also begins to tell her the stories that he sees.   He tells the stories and they both listen thinking that somehow these stories may involve people from the past.

Yet, the stories are disjointed and cover very different periods of time:  17th century Turkey (1623 to be exact), 1936 and 1969.   These life stories of five separate individuals are seen in visions and/or heard by our two protagonists.

Music and its simple joys is one of the themes that unite the distinct stories.   A dancer in Budapest in 1623 inspires a man of chemistry to invent a cymbal, the prototype of today’s premium brand found on many drum kits.   Count Basie’s inaugural performance at the Roseland Ballroom in New York City on Christmas Eve brings lovers together:  “The music had swung them here…  this happy romantic rhythm would kill them both.”

Another theme is the past as prelude.   We cannot fully understand who and what we are now without understanding our ancestors and how their choices during their lives led us to the current moments in our lives.

“Do you ever regret coming east and leaving the movies?”  Anna asked.

“No, I don’t,”  Pearl said.   She was looking straight up with her eyes open.   Anna, already falling asleep, couldn’t see the tears.   “If things hadn’t happened exactly the way they did,” she said, “I wouldn’t have been here with you.”

At the conclusion of American Music we see how the past and present stories are related.   But this is not the key point.   Once the past is fully encountered and understood, Mendelsohn tells us, we can’t hold on to it.   Once it has served its purpose (once our relatives have lived and died for us) it is time to let the past (and them) go.

“She saw the…  figures walk into the desert and she watched them…  and she knew for the first time that she had not been letting them go and then the car drove on and she let them go.”

There’s an angel, a guardian angel of sorts that appears to a character in this book.   He delivers a message and then disappears after doing his job.   Jane Mendelsohn has done her job here so very, very well that it’s remarkable and more.   I can almost see where the wings attach to her shoulders.

Highly recommended.

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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A Shaggy Dog

I Thought You Were Dead by Pete Nelson (Algonquin, April 2010)

This reviewer had such high hopes for this novel, a “love story” by Pete Nelson.   Like many readers, I loved The Art of Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein and hoped that this would be a worthy follow-up in the same genre.   In Stein’s book the animal protagonist is Enzo the dog; a dog whose thoughts can be heard by his race car driving owner.   Enzo is old and looking forward to his passing so that he can be reincarnated as a human being.   In Nelson’s book the featured animal is Stella the dog; a dog who can speak to her owner Paul Gustavson.   Stella is old and mostly immobile; she is fully prepared for her upcoming last trip to the vet.   Are the similarities a bit obvious?

I Thought You Were Dead starts off as a truly hilarious story due to Stella’s wise, sarcastic and biting voice.   The dog realizes that her divorced owner is pretty much a loser – he’s a hack writer who writes for the Moron series of books (like The Moron’s Guide to Nature, Paul’s current assignment).   Paul has a girlfriend, Tamsen, who takes out insurance in the form of a second boyfriend.   Paul might as well have the Beatles’ song “I’m A Loser” playing in the background of his life.

Stella’s spirit keeps the reader glued to the story until the point at which her health takes a turn for the worse, although it is not a fatal turn.   Because Stella looks at life as something to be enjoyed and valued in times of good health, she does not desire to hang around as something to be pitied when she drops stool around the house and has to be carried up and down the stairs.   In this, as in other things, she’s wiser than her owner.   Stella, in her wisdom, eventually convinces Paul that he must set up an appointment for her to be euthanized.

It is at the point of Stella’s sad death that the novel pretty much comes to an end.   Oh, Nelson continues it with a secondary plot about Paul’s father having a stroke and Paul having to come to terms with his past in order to understand his future.   Right…  It seems that Paul’s father crashed a family car when Paul and his siblings were young and tragedy ensued, a fact that everyone must deal with again for reasons that are not quite clear.   Paul is supposed to learn a great lesson when his father, recovering from a stroke, tells him not to drink.

One wonders if something happened in the author’s life that is being revealed here as a form of catharsis?   If so, it wouldn’t be the first time an author wrestled with his past in the form of thinly disguised fictional events.   In the forthcoming book The Mentor: A Memoir, Tom Grimes admits to including a factual incident in a novel he wrote – the night his father crashed the family automobile, “drunk and doing ninety.”

The family story in Dead feels like a secondary plot that was tacked on as the author could not decide what to write about once Stella the dog was removed from the spotlight in this novel.   It’s unfortunate as the glue lines attaching the funny and overly downcast plots are almost visible.   With Stella gone, the story limps painfully and overly slowly along to a conclusion – a disappointing one – that will come too late for the average reader.

There are some who criticize Anna Quindlen (unfairly in my eyes) for what they view as her slow and detached style.   Quindlen’s latest family novel, Every Last One, virtually soars compared to the final few plodding chapters of Dead.

Joseph Arellano

Take Away:   This one starts off as cute as a puppy before it turns into an old tired dog of a story.

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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Love in the 21st Century

Love Is a Four Letter Word: True Stories of Breakups, Bad Relationships and Broken Hearts

Let me be perfectly clear about this.   I’m generally not a fan of collections of stories, either true or non-fiction.   Why?   Because the quality level of the writing tends to vary so much in most anthologies to the point where it feels like volunteering to take a ride down a long and bumpy road.   But my instincts told me that this collection of 23 “true stories of seduction, heartbreak and regret” would be the exception.   For me, it was.

Credit must go to editor Michael Taeckens for finding some very talented American writers, of which he is one.   Perhaps I should say equally talented, because it’s almost as if editor Taeckens has applied the writing equivalent of a sound limiter…   Everything here comes off in an ear-and-mind-pleasing mid-range tone.

As for the stories themselves, they separate into two general categories:  the extremely humorous ones in which the writers have accepted the follies and embarrassments of their youth, and the sad and regretful ones in which the writers are still not quite sure who was at fault in their doomed love affairs and relationships.   (The latter, when looking back, are not even sure why they fought so hard with their ex-partners.)

Such is, in the words of Glenn Frey, love in the 21st Century.   As it is, this reader raced so quickly through the 290 pages in Love… that just one question remains.   When is Michael Taeckens editing his next compilation of stories and when, exactly, can I pre-order it?

Joseph Arellano

Thanks to Alexandra at Plume for the review copy!

Note:   There is some adult content in this collection, but nothing that one hasn’t either seen or heard about before.Love is a Four Letter Word (lg.)

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Coming Up Next…

A review of Love Is A Four Letter Word, 23 true stories of love and loss edited by Michael Taeckens.   Introduction by Neal Pollack.Love is a Four Letter Word 3

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