Military heroes are a staple in romance novels, much like cowboys, secret babies and virgin heroines. And like those time honored traditions of romance, most military heroes tend to be as fierce and commanding on the battlefield as they are in the bedroom. Anything less would be declared unmanly, unheroic and certainly unsympathetic, especially in this time of real life wars and battlefields. Yet, in the pages of Off Limits, U.S. Marine Jim McKenzie laid down his gun and refused to fight under any circumstances, cast aside his life as a soldier and ran away from his duty to his country. And as the reader gets to know this deceptively simple, but amazingly complex man, they admire him not in spite of his ‘unheroic’ choices, but because of them. Off Limits is the third in Lindsay McKenna’s Moments of Glory trilogy, a series set in 1965 Vietnam. The first in the series, Ride the Tiger, is a DIK for me, but this final installment of the trilogy only rises slightly above average.
Alexandra Vance is in Vietnam to meet with her father, a powerful Congressman. In a terrifying and gripping opening sequence, Alexandra’s helicopter is shot down, killing her pilots and fellow passengers and leaving her at the mercy of VC forces. Alex, who is injured in the crash, runs for her life, the enemy in hot pursuit. However, before she is captured by the enemy, she is rescued by Jim, who drags her to safety and proceeds to care for her injuries. But Jim is not part of some rescue squad or commando force. He is AWOL after deserting the military – with no intention of returning to duty. Instead, he plans to hide in the jungle until the war is over and then to somehow return to the States.
Alexandra’s intrusion into his already troubled situation changes everything and he vows to get her to safety, even if it means facing court-martial or worse for going AWOL. At first, Alexandra, whose father and brothers are military men, is horrified by Jim’s treasonous actions. But as she gets to know him and learn the chilling reasons why he left his post and refuses to fight (which I won’t reveal here – though his reasons are valid and believable and had this reader on his side), she begins to understand, sympathize and love this man. Jim grows to love her too, even though he feels, because of what he’s done, that they can never be together.
Ultimately, about midway through the book, Jim gets Alexandra to safety and is arrested, tried and jailed for his crimes, though the circumstances surrounding his going AWOL reduce his sentence. Alexandra vows to wait for him and wants to have a life with him, even though they’ve only known each other about a week and met under difficult circumstances. Jim would like to believe in Alexandra’s love for him, but because of his self-hatred over what he’s done and the fact they come from different worlds, that she’ll forget all about him once she returns to the US and starts her nursing school studies. For me, this is where a thrilling and powerful ride stumbled, never to regain its footing.
One reason why is Alexandra herself. While Jim is complex and multi-dimensional with flaws and good points, Alexandra is about as thin as the pages upon which the book is written. She loves Jim and is loyal and believes in him, but there really isn’t much more to her than that. Her own life and history before she met Jim is minimally explored. Her troubled relationship with her father, which could make for gripping drama, isn’t given nearly the time that the author provides for Jim’s relationship with his own parents. Her entire world basically becomes consumed by Jim and his problems and his family and his life. Yes, she does have a job, but only seems to get involved because of her relationship with Jim and seems ready and willing to cast it aside to deal with whatever issues Jim has. It could be because it was the 1960s and the women’s movement hadn’t yet grown beyond the fringe, but that’s no reason to make Alexandra such a non-entity in her own right.
The story also loses its excitement and drama in the final hundred pages of the book, and in a book of this relatively short page count, that’s a problem. Not much happens story-wise, and there’s not much conflict between Jim and Alexandra either. He saves her life, gets her to safety and from that point on, she waits for him to get out of the slammer. The part where they exchanged letters for a few chapters really dragged and I was tempted to skim. Eventually Jim is released and the novel limps to a happy ending, even though these two people are really strangers who don’t know each other. It’s mentioned and there’s some chatter about spending a week together (a point where she just suddenly takes off work – which she does a couple of times in the book, leaving me to wonder how she keeps her gig) to get to know each other, but I missed the part where they really got to know one another. Probably because it wasn’t there. They do have sex at this point, which leads to the most annoying part of the book for me. Alexandra has brief thoughts about giving up her virginity to a man she hardly knows, is not married to, doesn’t use protection with and wonders if they actually have a future. And then she goes and does it, tapping into one of my pet peeves: she has unprotected sex with him and thinks about how wonderful it would be to have his baby. No, STD’s wasn’t much of a concern back then, but unwanted pregnancies were (this is pre-Roe v Wade by several years) and I was baffled that a single woman would take such risks, especially in a time when her options were few and have a child out of wedlock would be disastrous for mother and child.
McKenna does do a great job of depicting the horrors of war and both it’s physical and psychological effects (though they should’ve had more weight in the novel and had great potential for conflict between the characters). I also really enjoyed the small part Jim’s parents played. They had little screen time, but were both fleshed out and likable characters who added depth and weight to Jim’s character and the book itself. And meeting Alexandra’s brother Case (who will no doubt have his own story), was a treat as well. Still though, despite the dynamite beginning, wonderful prose and intriguing hero you can’t ignore the poorly written and depicted heroine (her father is a terribly written character as well), the hard to buy love story and the fact that the story falls apart halfway through. I really only recommend looking for this book is you’ve read the previous two titles in the trilogy. Even then, I’d suggest skimming.