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Book Review: "The Best of Me" By Nicholas Sparks

Laura Santana |
October 11, 2011 | 2:12 p.m. PDT

Staff Reporter

"Best of Me" out today in bookstores everywhere (Grand Central Publishing).
"Best of Me" out today in bookstores everywhere (Grand Central Publishing).
In his seventeenth novel, "The Best of Me," Nicholas Sparks seems to have the romance novel formula down to a science. Attractive boy and girl from different sides of town meet and fall devastatingly in love? Check. Couple torn apart by war, parents, spouses, or traumatic past? Check. Shocking tearjerker ending? Double check. Sparks has mastered the art of writing novels that tug at readers’ heartstrings, evident from his novels selling over 77 million copies worldwide.

In "The Best of Me," Sparks adds the presence of unexplained mystical presences that help shape the characters’ lives. Ultimately, "The Best of Me" is about the characters being haunted –haunted by ghosts, past loves, and the possibilities of what could have been. But in the end, readers may be left feeling haunted by the somewhat undeveloped love story and overly dramatic conclusion.

"The Best of Me" tells the story of Dawson Cole and Amanda Collier. Amanda is the popular Southern belle of the small town of Oriental, North Carolina, raised in an elite rich family who has high expectations and overbearing opinions. Laying the classic foundation for a tragic love story, Dawson is poor and born into a family that traditionally breeds “moonshiners and drug dealers, alcoholics, wife beaters, abusive fathers and mothers, thieves and pimps, and above all, pathologically violent” members. The two meet in high school and fall in love, but parental disapproval forces them apart. Twenty years later, we meet Dawson when an oil rig explosion nearly kills him. A mysterious vanishing "being" saves his life thus introducing the first element that haunts the characters – ghosts.  

When ghosts are not haunting Dawson and Amanda, they are being haunted by the memories of each other. Like most dreamy male leads in a romance novel, Dawson is a loner. When he’s not working on the oil rig, he lives alone in a run-down trailer in New Orleans. He of course has a ripped, delicious body courtesy of a strict exercise regimen. Dawson also possesses the trademark handsome, silent male persona, due to his rough upbringing at the hands of his abusive father and cousins. He still considers Amanda to be his one and only true love, even though he does not know that she is married and has children. While as a teenager Dawson suffered from physical abuse by his family, Amanda’s adult life brings suffering through emotional abuse by her husband, leading her to wonder what kind of life she would have had if she stayed with Dawson.

These possibilities of what could have been continuously haunt the couple in their individual lives. Amanda’s daughter loses her battle with brain cancer as a toddler, pushing her marriage almost to a breaking point. Sparks shows how alcoholism affects Amanda’s seemingly perfect family, presenting the possibility that her unhappy marriage might lead her back into Dawson’s arms. When Amanda and Dawson find themselves back in their hometown after a friend’s death, they are faced with their forbidden desires to rekindle their teenage love affair. Unfortunately for them, Dawson’s abusive cousins know that he is back in town and are annoyingly obsessed with seeking revenge on him.

The two antagonists in the novel are Dawson’s cousins, Abee and Ted. Sparks seems to struggle with creating believable evil characters, probably because he is more accustomed to writing about men who wish to sweep women off of their feet as opposed to men who wish to sweep the floor with another man’s face. Indeed, his attempts to produce fearful enemies fall flat. It is difficult to feel threatened by a character who dates a girl named Candy, uses phrases like “shorty shorts,” or considers the nickname “little miss cheerleader” to be derogatory. Sparks uses these characters to heighten drama and ultimately create a heartbreaking ending, but it would have been better if they were characters that readers could really hate as opposed to just find plain annoying.

In addition, Sparks does not focus too much on Dawson and Amanda’s young relationship, so it is hard to sympathize with and support their unrelenting forbidden passion for each another as adults. Readers instead must learn about the couple’s young love through flashbacks and tender reminiscences, not from being in the moment with the characters while their love is blossoming. Focusing on the couple twenty years after their relationship instead of giving readers the opportunity to witness it as it grows allows the novel to escape being a teenage romance story, but sacrifices adequate reader empathy towards the couple. At one point, Amanda’s mother worries that her adult daughter’s behavior with Dawson is a repeat of her rebellious teenage years, and it is difficult not to agree with her since Sparks only reveals the lustful surface of the couple’s connection.

Surprisingly, the complicated, adult relationship between Amanda and her alcoholic husband Frank has more substance than Amanda’s teenage courtship with Dawson. As an avid Sparks reader, Amanda and Frank’s relationship may be one of the most captivating relationships in any of his novels. Usually, Sparks has a tendency to write alcoholic characters like caricatures from bad Western films– like Dawson’s father and cousins are the town drunkards that not even the police want to deal with (and use terms like "shorty shorts").

But Amanda and Frank are a married couple dealing with the untimely death of their child while raising three other children. Amanda and Frank’s relationship may not have the mind-blowingly lustful passion that Amanda feels with Dawson, but maybe because her twenty-year long marriage with Frank has been riddled with complications and emotions that she never had with Dawson. The novel might have fared better focusing on a marriage wrought with real-life pain as opposed to a teenage love reunion filled with anxieties of everything that never was.

Nicholas Sparks is not known for having the most complex characters and impressive literary language. But the man sure knows how to make readers shed a tear. Despite "The Best of Me"’s melodramatic and far-fetched ending, it still manages to add an emotional punch like a Hallmark card. Fans of Sparks will enjoy this novel because it fulfills every desire they have to swoon and be shocked. But those Sparks fans looking for a fresh storyline will not find one in "The Best of Me"; they will find a recycled formula that has been proven successful millions of times over. Overall, Sparks’ seventeenth novel is an easy beach read, but it certainly could not be called the best of his work so far.

Reach Laura here.

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