Berkley, $15.00, ISBN 978-0-425-27377-7
Contemporary Romance, 2017
Okay, so it’s my fault. The Thing about Love came out in the first quarter of 2017 and it took me this long to read it because (a) it’s in trade paperback and I’m not keen on paying that much money for a book at a time when the currency exchange is brutal on my end, and (b) the author’s previous books seemed to be tad formulaic and I was getting bored. So I waited for them to reissue this in mass market paperback, and waited and waited until I decided, oh what the heck. About that second part, taking a break from the author’s books works wonders because this one turns out to be one of the most enjoyable romances I’ve read in a while. A small, cranky part of me is still not too happy that I paid $15 for this one, but a larger part of me is glad that I finally broke down and bought it.
While there is a suspense element in this one, the emphasis is still on the romance, hence my filing this one under “contemporary romance”. What makes this remarkable is how the author does this without making the suspense element feels like some filler thrown in to get things going and to pad the pages.
Anyway, the story. Jessica Harlow and John Shepherd are FBI agents who have been a bug up one another’s ass ever since they met and clashed during their training days at Quantico. They eventually go separate ways, but they always have the other person at the back of their minds because, as much as that person annoy them, they also have to give some grudging credit to how tough and capable that other person is. Cut to a few years down the road. She’s finally made her divorce official, he found his girlfriend cheating on him with his best friend (and worse, he’s the last to know among all his male buddies). They are both looking for a fresh start, and this one undercover assignment – posing as real estate business partners to entrap a corrupt mayor whose fondness for bribes is all but officially proven – is just one last stop before they both move on to something else within the FBI. And I’m sure we can guess what happens when these two are thrown into close proximity over prolonged periods of time.
Incidentally, John is this tall, huge, brawny dude with brains as well, and I can’t get over how he’s just two alphabets extra from having the same name of my protagonist character in the original Mass Effect trilogy… and both characters are exactly as described by the author. I keep seeing the default male Commander John Shepard – Mark Vanderloo’s face with buzzcut hair and Mark Meer’s deadpan voice – as John in my head. Not that it is a bad thing, as I do love my Commander Shepard and I still can’t get over how crappy the endings for Mass Effect 3 were and… uh, oh yeah, this book.
If you have read any of the author’s books, you may agree with me that she is really good at creating believable characters as well as red-hot chemistry, and baby, the author pulls out all stops here. Sure, the whole thing reads like any other “pretend partners turned real” story in the market, but what makes this one stand out is how fun the whole deal is without coming off as contrived or formulaic. A big reason for this is that the characters may be hotter and more capable than all of us combined, but there is so much of them that still feels real and relatable.
Jessica is free from any of the contrivances designed to make her pass the romance heroine purity test – she has a normal, contemporary attitude about sex, she has no issues about lying or using her sex appeal to get the job done (she is, after all, an undercover FBI agent), and she is one of those few rare heroines who understand that just because you slept with a guy, it doesn’t mean that the world will end and you will be branded a slut forever if he doesn’t propose and declare that he loves you immediately after. She also has friends and family members plus a life and interest apart from John, she doesn’t rely on him to save the day, and the author doesn’t deliberately make Jessica second best just so that John will come on top and be more of a “man”. Julie James trusts me to accept, like, and respect her heroine without trying too hard to make Jessica play by genre rules, and the result is a heroine that I can certainly cheer and root for without worrying that half my brain cells will die for doing so.
And as for John, he’s so adorably male. He talks, thinks, and speaks like a guy – not some exaggerated caveman jock type of guy or some overly sensitive dandified nice guy, just a regular guy who just happens to be more capable at being Captain America than the average guy’s guy out there. He exudes sex appeal and gentlemanly gallantry all in one – he’s a monster in bed and a hero outside of it, just the way I like my romance heroes. Also, I love how the author has John liking the heroine’s toughness and capability without forcing the heroine to go through some typical romance novel kind of “feminization” stunt like craving for a baby and getting all neurotic over the biological clock. John adores Jessica for what and who she is, not because she’s somehow hiding a “more feminine” interior underneath, and thank god for that.
Because both the hero and the heroine are on an equal footing, their cooperation while going undercover as well as their developing relationship are so much fun to read. Just two smart and likable people, doing their thing with great humor and the occasional scenes of hard-hitting emotion. Despite those two having fallen hard over a short time, the romance is believable because of the chemistry and the fact that these two come off as emotionally mature and sensible adults. She may eventually hate how he keeps the toilet seat up and he may get annoyed by how she insists on keeping the door open while she’s sitting on the toilet, but they’ll work it out, I’m sure.
Also, the author manages to have some characters from the previous books either show up or get mentioned in a fun, non-intrusive way that makes perfect Easter eggs for readers who want to find out what happened to those characters since their books ended. I love this approach, and I wish more authors would do sequel baiting like this instead of the current “I will slap the readers in the face with these characters every few pages until they realize that they MUST buy those books too, muahahaha!” way it is being done now.
So yes, I adore The Thing about Love through and through. I haven’t been too impressed by her last two books, but this one sees her bouncing back to top form in style. It’s great, it’s life, and it’s definitely the thing.