The Return

“The Return,” by Nicholas Sparks. Grand Central Publishing, 2020. 355 pages, $28.

Best-selling novelist Nicholas Sparks’ 22nd novel, “The Return,” will not disappoint his many fans and might even help him pick up a few new ones.

This is the compelling story of thirty-something Trevor Benson, a damaged Afghanistan war veteran and physician who has just returned in 2014 to the home he inherited from his late grandfather in New Bern, North Carolina. The story is told entirely through Trevor’s eyes, which give Sparks a chance to shine in his specialty of convincingly illuminating the emotional lives of men.

Trevor suffers from various PTSD symptoms stemming from a devastating attack that he barely survived. Even so, he was hospitalized and in rehab for long periods. Although I have had no personal experience with PTSD, Sparks’ description of Trevor’s challengers rings true and can help the reader better understand this problem. The permanent loss of two fingers has ended his career as a surgeon, although he is preparing to retool as a psychiatrist.

One interesting aspect of this story is the Zoom (or Skype?) sessions that Trevor has regularly with his own therapist Dr. Bowen, who still lives in Florida. The book illuminates some excellent therapeutic session segments and a real openness to the process by the patient Trevor. Clearly, he is willing to use this tool in his healing and it just as clearly is working.

He was close to his grandfather, his only family, and recalls many happy childhood years spent with him in New Bern. Being single and an only child whose parents are deceased, Trevor now has no family or close friends for support. He is currently staying in his grandfather’s house he inherited in New Bern for the summer, before his residence in psychiatry begins in Baltimore.

Most of the story revolves around Trevor’s encounter with two rather mysterious local females. Natalie Masterson is a young deputy sheriff who clearly clicks with Trevor. However, as they grow more intimate, she seems to hold back. Finally, in spite of sending many positive signals, she finally tells him to please not to contact her again. Although devastated, Trevor loves her enough to respect her wishes, all the while wondering what secret wound she is nursing. The eventual revelation of her story will surprise readers.

The second mysterious person is a sullen teenager Callie who lives by herself in the trailer park up the street from Trevor. They meet as she walks by his house regularly to go to work. He learns that she often helped his grandfather with his bees in his apiary. Although the connection is not romantic as it is with Natalie, Trevor also wonders what her mysterious backstory might be. Callie is very suspicious and private, though she gradually opens up enough for Trevor to learn that she had a significant connection to his grandfather.

There is also an aspect of mystery here, given that Trevor knows that his grandfather died in a hospital in Easley, South Carolina, several hundred miles from New Bern. Although Trevor did not arrive there until after the man’s death, his widowed grandfather did leave some final labored cryptic words which might reveal why he had made the puzzling trip to Easley, in spite of being in poor health. Could it have been to visit a lady friend, a scenario Trevor finds difficult to believe? If not that, then why did a frail old man who rarely left home drive several hours to a strange place?

The resolution of this mystery brings Natalie, Callie and Trevor together in some surprising ways that make a compulsive page-turner for the last part of the book. Trevor takes considerable agency to solve the mysteries of the two women, resulting in great change and healing growth for all three characters. A final major change, however, is not revealed until the story’s epilogue set five years later. Nicholas Sparks ably continues his well-earned position as one of the best contemporary storytellers.

Richard Harris is a professor emeritus of psychological sciences at K-State.

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