Reviewed by Ian Lipke
That Nicholas Sparks would write in any genre other than the one he has chosen is unimaginable. He writes so well that the reader expects a masterpiece each time a new book appears. This is a tough expectation of the writer, but Sparks seems to maintain a high standard. But if one wanted to be nasty, one could argue that it is a standard in a narrow field. Such an argument would have to cast doubt on the abilities of such writers as Nora Roberts and Michael Connelly who confine their stories to a single field – that would be ridiculous. Sparks has chosen to write romantic fiction and, as with previous tales, has produced a fine novel in The Return.
We do not need to dwell for long on the plot. An injured veteran of the Afghanistan war returns to the dilapidated shack he had inherited from his grandfather. A prickly teenager, called Callie, knows the circumstances of the old man’s death but new resident Trevor Benson can get no information from her. Trevor falls instantly in love with Deputy Sheriff Natalie and she returns his love, but always holds herself distant. The book explores the relationship and, in time, reveals Natalie’s secret and Callie’s past.
The story has been told many times over many decades in a multitude of ways. Sparks realises from the outset that another telling must bring freshness to the rather stale tale. His writing style is noted for its sensitivity. His choice of words and construction of sentences are perfectly matched to scenes of intense emotion. A reviewer might argue that today’s world accepts the situations Sparks tends to keep hidden, but nothing detracts from his careful handling. Readers might expect to be angry with Callie’s rebuff of Trevor’s overtures of friendship or Natalie’s unexplained remoteness. They could have been confronted with a maudlin treatment when Natalie’s behaviour is explained. But those things don’t happen.
The character of a North Carolina town is revealed in significant ways. We see the reserve while judgments of the new man in town are made; we see the askance in Natalie’s demeanour as she keeps alive her perceived responsibilities to the memory of a beloved old man; we watch this view change to openhearted generosity (and eventually love) when all suspicion is dissolved. Her awareness of Callie’s right to her secrets stops her from enquiring further until Callie is hospitalised. The Callie solution is found through clever insights and is transmitted to Callie with the utmost grace. What distinguishes this part of the plot is the simple, unrestrained love and support of the townsfolk.
This is a book without villains. One tends not to notice evil when the healthy side of human thinking occupies the page. That lack of interest cannot be achieved unless the writer knows what he is doing. Sparks likes to add a sliver of mystery to interrupt the sameness.
Now, we all have secrets. Despite what I’d told her about my past, I was still a stranger, so there was no reason to expect her to share whatever hers were. But…I couldn’t shake the notion that Natalie was less concerned about what her secrets might reveal than about the guilt her secrets seemed to wield over her. (71)
That’s something to set readers thinking, but that’s vintage Nicholas Sparks.
The ending requires special mention. A future for Natalie and Trevor has always looked grim. It has been that way for over three hundred pages. Callie’s wedding sets the scene for a conclusion that is inspired.
I’m a huge fan of Nicholas Sparks and recommend this latest book most highly.
By Nicholas Sparks
$32.99; 368 pp