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Cook: Sparks latest tale sings with charm
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‘The Last Song’
By: Nicholas Sparks
Price: $24.99
Rating: 4 out of 5 bookmarks

Nicholas Spark’s latest novel, “The Last Song,” is a heartwarming story about the relationship between a father and his children, the love between two young adults from different classes and the struggles that teenagers endure as they grow up, learning to make wiser and less selfish decisions.

I found myself feeling deeply for the characters, particularly Ronnie, whom the novel focuses on the most. She is a 17-year-old who was once a musical prodigy, but after her parents separated she retreats into herself and swears to give up music forever. She is angry with her piano-playing father who she believes is responsible for the divorce.

When Ronnie and her younger brother Jonah are forced to spend their summer with their estranged father, they are given no explanation from their mother as to why, other than it has been three years since they have seen him. Ronnie, furious as ever that she forced into this, wants to spend the summer by herself — but while trying to avoid her father, she gets mixed up with a group of teens led by Marcus, who has a dangerous sadistic streak. Fortunately Ronnie also meets Will, a gorgeous volleyball player who is much more caring than his self-absorbed friends. He and Ronnie begin to fall in love, and as Ronnie opens her heart again, she also finds herself bonding with her father, Steve, and learning from his patient wisdom.

If this plot sounds like something you may see in a feel-good movie, there’s a good reason for that. I get the impression that Sparks, while being a superb and popular novelist, intends for his works to be filmed, given that several already have, including “The Notebook” (2004) and “Dear John” (in post-production). In fact, “The Last Song” already has a screenplay adaptation and has cast Miley Cyrus in the lead alongside Greg Kinnear as her father.

But while the novel reads cinematically, perhaps a better word is “formulaic.” The story is constructed well and has a few cute story elements to make it its own (I liked the part about how Ronnie, letting her compassionate side show through, protects a nest of turtle eggs for nights on end so they don’t die). But much of the story was predictable and the heavy foreshadowing becomes tedious. This is also a very “safe” book, as in you really don’t have to worry too much about the characters when they get into a dire situation. You already get the feeling that everything is going to work out smoothly for our young protagonists — in fact, tense situations between Will and Ronnie seem to be patched over as quickly as they begin.

This story also displays every teenage stereotype we’ve come to see over the past few decades of books and movies: the rebellious but smart independent girl who is transformed by love, the handsome upper class “prince” with a heart of gold, the lonely gothic girl with no self esteem (by the way, her nickname Blaze almost hits you over the head with its forewarning of her fate), the “bad boy” who loves to mess with our heroes for no reason other than he’s a jerk, and the blonde beauty queen who likes to make things hard for our heroine.

If the reader can get past the fact that we have met all of these character types many times before — and can appreciate the little nuances Sparks slips into his characters (a few of them, anyway) — then they can be very likeable. Yet I wish the story could have focused more on Steve, undergoing the greatest emotional and spiritual battles of all, and Ronnie’s 10-year-old brother Jonah, who from what little we see of him seemed like a more fun and less cliché character.

Overall, however, I ended up liking this book. Sometimes we all need a story that, while not exploring any extraordinary new ground, makes us feel at home and may even reflect our own relationships between parents, children, loved ones and ourselves.

Alison Reeger Cook is a Gainesville resident whose Off the Shelves book review runs every other week in Sunday Life. Know of a good book to review? E-mail her to tell her about it.