Written by: Beth Fred, Special to CC2K
After our mediocre review of the film adaptation of the Nicholas Sparks book Dear John, CC2K contributor Beth Fred takes a look at the book and considers whether it's any better.
“'Dear John,' the letter read. And with those two words, a heart was broken and two lives changed forever. When Savannah Lynn Curtis comes into his life, John Tyree knows he is ready to turn over a new leaf. An angry rebel, he had enlisted in the army after high school, not knowing what else to do. Then, during a furlough, he meets Savannah, the girl of his dreams. The attraction is mutual and quickly grows into the kind of love that leaves Savannah vowing to wait for John while he finishes his tour of duty. But neither can foresee that 9/11 is about to change the world. Like so many proud men and women, John must choose between love and country. Now, when he finally returns to North Carolina, John will discover how love can transform us in many ways we never imagined.”
…or so the back of the book says. It's a good blurb. It enticed me to read it. Unfortunately the preceding three hundred thirty-five pages are somewhat of a let down. Though I must say, it had a powerful ending.
The characters, John and Savannah, state more than once that if they talked about their relationship, most people would just assume it to be a fling. In spite of their claims that it isn't, the truth it really feels like a fling. Part of the problem is the whole plot is basically unfolded in the prologue, which leaves little reason to read it. But it's more than that. While the choice Savannah will make is not explicitly stated, it's obvious before the first chapter is over that whether she's in denial or not, she has romantic interests outside of John Tyree.
Then there is the Savannah herself, problem number two. In the first couple of chapters, her character seems faker than a cubic zirconium on a shelf of diamonds. Seemingly, she has no flaw. Then as the book goes on, more than once she appears to be selfish to a fault. The minor changes she makes throughout the novel are external, and while if you looked hard there is probably an argument for character development, it's unauthentic. But more than that, I tried very hard to like Savannah Curtis and just couldn't! Which made the book a lot harder to read than I think it had to be.
To add another layer of inauthenticity to this novel, is the romance. They met on a beach. Barely spent a week together, and most of that was in the evenings after she finished working on houses. There is even a time before he leaves when he acknowledges he thinks she has interests elsewhere. But all too soon, he's flying across the globe and they're swearing they'll be married when he returns. This happens somewhere around page 170. Although, the romance hasn't been authentic until this point Sparks' manages to paint a heart wrenching scene. For the first time I felt drawn in. John goes to Germany and comes back one year later on leave. He meets her parents. They have a few fights. (Go figure, since they only really knew each other for a week). Another farewell scene. 9/11 hits in a paragraph, and John has re-enlisted and tells Savannah after the fact. Another fact that points to his being a fling not a relationship, because you wouldn't usually make a commitment to be an ocean away from your wife or girlfriend without at least asking her opinion first.
He gets deployed to Iraq, and that's when the letter comes. Since he has nothing to go back to, he re-enlists. Because of an emergency, he goes back to North Carolina and makes the decision to see her. The story really starts to turn around here. This is where there becomes a reason to turn the page. Though the events that follow weren't laid out in the first chapter, the reader still knows what's going to happen well before it does. In spite of that, we're compelled to keep going. The tragedy is that it took more than 200 pages and 2/3 of the book to get here! It ends powerfully—though, foreseeably.
It becomes painfully obvious in the final chapters how much John cared for Savannah. (Maybe, it was more than a fling; Sparks should have framed it better in that case.) But more than that he made a selfless decision that left him alone in the world to do what he thought was best for all the people involved. It's a sad ending for John, but an ending that is well suited for everyone else and since there are no “bad” guys in this story through tears we can be okay with that.
The strengths of Dear John are the ending and the relationship that develops between John and his somewhat functional father through patience, love, and understanding. The downfalls are pretty much everything else. The pitfall is the back of the book which is somewhat misleading. 9/11 didn't play much of a role in the book, at least in my opinion and the changes John made were for the most part made after he joined the military and before he met the girl.
Was it worth reading? I think the ending made it worthwhile—it's just a matter of getting that far. Worth buying? Eh—It's a $6 book, why not? But if you're attached to your $6 find it at a library. As for the movie, I don't see how you make a full length feature out of a mere 335 pages, but that's just me.