Author: Nicholas Sparks

Title: The Best of Me

Publisher: Grand Central Publishing

They say you never forget your first love. Certainly high school sweethearts Amanda Collier and Dawson Cole never did. So what will happen now that fate has put them back in touch after decades apart?

Actually, it may not be fate that put them back together so much as Tuck Hostetler. He was their ally back in the day and both kept in contact with him over the years. Tuck was Dawson's safe place, a garage owner who gave Dawson a job and a place to live when Dawson couldn't take any more of his moonshine-running, drug-dealing, pathologically violent family.

Later, Tuck was Amanda's safe place, the one person she could really talk to after her small daughter died of cancer and her husband turned to alcohol. Now old Tuck has finally died and his last request may change everything for Dawson and Amanda.

Back in the early eighties, Dawson and Amanda were a small town Romeo and Juliet. He wasn't just from the wrong side of the tracks, his family lived on a wooded homestead where "the TRESPASSERS WILL BE SHOT ON SIGHT sign wasn't simply a warning but a promise." She, on the other hand, was from one of the town's leading families.

Colliers and Coles did not mix—but Dawson wasn't like the rest of his family and Amanda saw him as her soul mate. Maybe he was . . . but then she went to college and he was involved in an accident so tragic that twenty-five years later, he's still paying for it. They haven't seen each other since high school—until now.

Sparks is an amazing storyteller and The Best of Me is no exception. His characters are richly layered creations who seem mysterious and familiar at the same time. He's also fluent in "crazy" as exhibited by Dawson's scary cousins who see Dawson's return to town as an opportunity to settle old scores. Sparks has a way with settings, too; Tuck's garage, a cabin in the woods, a dimly-lit redneck bar . . . you'll see them all clearly in your mind's eye.

The pacing is excellent, as well. The viewpoint shifts among Dawson, Amanda, and several other people—sometimes after only a few paragraphs. In lesser hands this could have been a tangle of confusion, but Sparks manages to make each of the multiple storylines easy to follow as they move inexorably toward the book's climax.

That being said, I wouldn't say The Best of Me is Sparks' best work. The tale is beautifully told, but the plot itself—hinging as it does on fate, the occasional ghost, the seeming attitude that true love trumps all (possibly even marriage vows), and a final "coincidence"—struck me as (dare I say it?) a little on the sappy side.

While Dawson, a man who "lived a specific life for specific reasons," is an engaging character, his story is more discouraging than anything else. There's so much regret woven throughout the book: ‘what might have been' hangs heavy as a storm cloud. Still, even when he's not at his best, Sparks is better than most and The Best of Me is good enough. 

*This review first published 10/26/2011