The Woman Left Behind
The Woman Left Behind is the best kind of romantic suspense in the sense that the heroine is no damsel in distress requiring rescue but neither is she a beefed up black-ops assassin as are found in so many female-empowered stories of this genre. Instead she’s somewhere in between; she’s basically tech support. Communications. But after scoring high on a spatial awareness test disguised as a video game, she and a few others from her department are reassigned to various GO-Teams to undertake surveillance and communications work on-site. As in boots on the ground, in hostile environments – oh, and jumping out of planes as required.
Jina Modell is hugely unimpressed with her risky new assignment but she is no quitter. She might be the only woman in her group of recruits, and is easily the smallest of the bunch, but when she’s introduced to the handful of hulking, dangerous men who are to be her new team members, she doesn’t flinch. She gives as good as she gets. Over the course of a year she transforms physically under a barrage of training exercises, embracing her new normal, adjusting to her team, and never giving in. But the hardest part of her new assignment aren’t the physical challenges, isn’t the toll to her body, the lack of sleep and total erasure of her social life, no. It’s resisting her attraction to her team leader, Levi “Ace” Butcher.
Levi never dreamed he’d end up saddled with a barely trained member on his team, and he certainly didn’t expect it to be a woman to boot. Jina is no bombshell but the moment she opens her mouth and lets loose her attitude, all wrapped up in a raspy, throaty, voice… he’s gone on her. Too bad he’s already laid down the law with the team that no one should be mixing business with pleasure – and that includes him. Their jobs are too risky, and emotional entanglements could result in mistakes or, at worst, be fatal. As a result, we see these two do their best to totally ignore each other and for a whole year, surprisingly, they do manage to resist the pull.
Howard does a really good job of showing Levi’s mixed feelings for ‘Babe’, aka Jina; his desire to want to set her up to fail, to push her to quit, so he can pursue something with her, while finding her stubbornness and her inability to back down too appealing to stomp all over. I’m not sure I can classify this book as feminist but there are some really attractively modern behaviours written into the choices and behaviours of both leads and while I can’t say I’ve read a lot in this particular genre, what I have read has always lent itself towards… misogyny? Overwhelming alpha characteristics? Which isn’t to say Levi isn’t an alpha male – he is – but there’s a really great balance between Levi and Jina that I didn’t expect, and I found their dynamic totally compelling.
What did drag the story down, though, was the fact that… well, it dragged. The blurb suggests it to be action-packed and fast-paced and while the synopsis doesn’t lie exactly, it did give me a different impression as to how the book would play out. Without spoiling too much, the real meat of the doesn’t actually occur until well into the second half of the book. For almost sixty percent of this read, it’s mostly training scenarios, agonizing over attraction, Jina pushing herself, running through her mantra of not being a quitter, and fantasizing over the one make-out session that she and Levi do give in to. The buildup affords us a good sense of Jina’s journey, and provides excellent background for the leads prior to the time when they get together, but it does end up being repetitive and it could easily have been pared down a bit without losing any emotional traction.
There’s also a behind-the-scenes threat we glimpse through a third PoV and honestly, that’s the least interesting part of it all. The ambush/set-up plot just doesn’t work, and when reveal comes, it’s pretty much a letdown. I’m fully behind the concept and have seen it done well, but the execution here just isn’t successful.
When all is said and done, however, I did enjoy my first experience with Howard’s writing and was entertained by her characters. With a faster pace, more plot and less plod in the first part, and a more expert villain, this would have been an all-around win. In The Woman Left Behind, the author has created a fun set of varied personas, an interesting group dynamic, and a delicious hate-to-love set-up with her leads, and I’m looking forward to picking through Linda Howard’s very extensive backlist.