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Taking a vacation with Nicholas Sparks

February and early March were a little rough on your reviewer. We got slammed with some bad weather — snow I like, but long, gray winter days wear on me — and I suffered some health problems, one of which put me in a dismal emergency room cubicle for five hours. A week of fighting a severe chest cold has also taken its toll.

So I decided to take a vacation and head for New Bern, North Carolina.

I required no car or rental house for this getaway. No, instead I opened Nicholas Sparks’ latest novel, The Return (Grand Central Publishing, 2020, 355 pages), poured myself a cup of hot tea replete with honey and a slice of lemon, kicked back in my beloved La-Z-Boy recliner, and read myself away from my troubles.

Trevor Benson, who narrates this story, is a Navy doctor wounded in a mortar attack in Afghanistan. After months of surgeries and physical therapy, followed by many more months of psychiatric treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder, Trevor travels to the coast of North Carolina to tend to his deceased grandfather’s house and property, which includes several beehives. Having spent his summers there as a boy, Trevor finds his stay in his beloved grandfather’s home brings him comfort and healing. He also ruminates on his grandfather’s death, trying to figure out why the 91-year-old had died hours from home in Easley, South Carolina. 

While living in his grandfather’s house, Trevor meets Callie, a teenager with a troubled history who now works as a clerk at Slow Jim’s Trading Post. Though shy at first, and unwilling to share any details about her past, Callie does recollect Carl, Trevor’s grandfather, for his kindnesses to her, and eventually Trevor begins to suspect she holds the key to the mystery of his whereabouts at his death.

Trevor also meets and befriends Natalie Masterson, a strikingly beautiful deputy sheriff who, like Callie, keeps secrets from her personal life locked in her heart. Trevor quickly falls in love with her, but though she obviously has feelings for him as well, some barrier that Trevor can’t identify and which she refuses to discuss keeps them apart.

Throughout the rest of The Return, Trevor plays amateur detective as he looks into the circumstances of his grandfather’s death and tries to discover more about Callie’s shadowy past. He continues to seek romance with the elusive Natalie, cares for his grandfather’s beehives, and studies in preparation for an upcoming psychiatric residency in Baltimore. To say much more than that about the plot would spoil the story for readers.

Doubtless some critics view Sparks as a lightweight novelist, a guy who writes romantic stories whose characters and plots are formulaic, varying little from book to book.

Perhaps. 

But here are some reasons why so many readers, including myself, enjoy these stories.

First up is the author’s talent. Sparks’s writing is crisp and clear, and delivered with a simplicity that undoubtedly is the product of great effort. Here, for example, he describes one of his early meetings with Natalie while both of them are shopping at the farmers’ market:

“She turned her attention to the table, chewing on her lip as she studied the produce. Moving closer, I stole a peek at her profile, thinking that her unguarded expression revealed a surprising innocence, as though she still puzzled over why bad things happened in the world. I wondered if it had something to do with her job, or whether I was simply imagining it. Or whether, God forbid, it had something to do with me.”

Like Natalie Masterson, Sparks’s prose is easy on the eyes.

Moreover, many of us can identify with Sparks’s characters. They resemble people we meet in our daily lives, acquaintances and strangers, folks we see in the grocery store or the coffee shop. Many novelists paint portraits of the extreme in human nature — serial killers, drug addicts, figures of fantasy — but The Return features average people dealing with problems large and small just the way most of us do. Trevor’s struggle with PTSD, for instance, which so many veterans suffer, gives readers insight into this disorder along with hope that the afflicted can battle against it. 

Finally, The Return is entertaining. It’s an easy read, the plots keep our attention, we learn a little along the way about beekeeping and medicine, and for the most part the people we meet on our excursion to the coast are likeable. I polished off the book in two days and enjoyed every minute of it. 

Contrast this experience with my reading of Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Devils, which I began two weeks ago, having vowed to read at least six classics this year that were new to me. (Note to self: Do NOT select another 700-page book.) The Russian names and the convoluted relationships make for tough going on this one, and I have only just passed page 200. I’m glad I’m reading Dostoevsky — years ago, I read Crime and Punishment and The Brothers Karamazov — but I wouldn’t call my visit to Russia a vacation. 

At any rate, if you’re looking for entertainment, a good story with interesting characters, and some time away from your routine, try The Return. 

(Jeff Minick reviews books and has written four of his own: two novels, Amanda Bell and Dust On Their Wings, and two works of nonfiction, Learning As I Go and Movies Make the Man. This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.)

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