Linda Howard’s Mackenzie’s Mountain and Mr. Perfect were two of the first romances I read and loved. When Howard “returned” to romantic suspense with Troublemaker in 2016, I was thrilled. I can’t say I loved the latter with the same giddy enthusiasm I read my first Howards, but her latest, The Woman Left Behind? Wow, is it ever terrific!
There’s enough signature Howard to please her earliest fans and more than enough to earn her new ones. Howard sees a conventional romantic suspense premise turn into something original, yet familiar, fresh, yet Howard-satisfying. The Woman Left Behind opens with the villain, a traitorous, vengeful Congressman bent on destroying Alex Macnamara’s GO-Teams, government-sanctioned paramilitary groups Macnamara leads, who fight threats to US security. The GO-Teams are made of big, bad, muscle-bound dudes with patriotic hearts, wise-cracking mouths, and superhuman physical abilities.
Hero Levi “Ace” Butcher leads one of Macnamara’s teams. Toiling away on national security are other groups, such as the one our heroine, Jina Modell, belongs to, cyber-security. When her superior gaming abilities are noted, she is transferred to work with the GO-Teams. She will be in charge of a supersonic, super-abled drone she dubs “Tweety”, which she’ll manipulate when Ace’s team is out in the field. Jina will provide them with extra cover and intel. Jina, in tandem with Tweety, will give them the protection and seeing-eye-bird information that’ll make their work even more successful and them more likely to return to their families. Before Jina can get her eager little computer-nerd hands on Tweety, she’ll have to train to reach team physical standards and then maintain that level of physical fitness, skill, strength, and know-how.
I loved every page of Howard’s novel, especially Jina’s weeks and weeks of physical training. You’d think describing the grueling physical exercice necessary to join a crack paramilitary team would, well, be boring after a while. It wasn’t. Howard uses Jina’s physical testing to develop her characters, as well as the relationship between Jina and love interest, Levi “Ace”. In the first half, Howard’s touch is light in places, downright hilarious in others, and beautifully caricatured in terms of her alpha-men, simultaneously desirable uber-men and pastiches of every alpha-male, military hero you’ve ever read in a romantic suspense novel.
But it’s Jina’s voice that won me over and made the novel great. Jina knows she’s a nerd who wants to play with a gazillion dollar government drone, but she’s also tongue-in-cheek funny about the physical feats her widdle self must achieve. She’s determined, spunky, and a trooper in the face of the guys’ ribbing, teasing, and testing. Moreover, Howard beautifully portrays what it means to be a team: to be loyal, work in harmony, each according to his talents and abilities, for the greater good and sake of taking care and protecting each other. I loved how Jina was determined to conquer all physical tests, but also yearned to be part of a team. Howard showed how team spirit and loyalty are built and maintained.
Firstly, I’d like to prove how comic-book funny and tongue-in-cheek Howard’s Jina is vis-à-vis her Samson-like team members, especially when they first meet and are put in charge of Jina’s training:
She wasn’t running. No way would they make her run. The biggest one spoke, in a dark, rough voice that sounded as if he gargled with rocks. “We hear you’re our girl.” “Then I guess you’re my boys.” The big dude stared down at her. “Babe,” he said, his tone faintly astonished … “I think you just named her.” What? No! Alarm shot through her. She knew what they meant. They all had nicknames, and she didn’t want to be a “Babe,” either human or pig. She wanted a cool nickname, a kick-ass nickname, something that would make people think twice about messing with her. “Babe” practically invited messing. “Not Babe. I don’t like Babe,” she said. “I like Grenade, or Mankiller, something like that.” A round of snickers greeted that.
I loved Howard’s rendering of the monolithic testosterone that was the team and then … BABE! How Jina’s side-eyed sarcasm and chutzpah bring freshness and humble humour to the exchanges. I loved Babe and how she took it all on: male exclusivity, taxing training, even though she knew this wasn’t what she was about. She was driven by determination and eventually, a LOVE of the team: ” … she wanted to do this. She wanted to meet with their friends and families, she wanted to be invited to their cookouts, feel as if she belonged.” I found Jina’s attachment to the team and theirs to her and to each other moving, without sappiness.
But there is more to it than that, as suggested by that word “belonging”. Because Jina’s desire for the team and purpose become greater than her attraction to her team leader: “She. Couldn’t. Quit. Doing so would betray everything she was, every sense of self. Maybe she drove herself past what a sane person would do, but didn’t the guys also do that?” There’s the crux of the matter. Howard is able, at least in this romance and it IS a romance on many levels of yearning-and-can’t-have, to portray motivations and emotions beyond lust, yearning, desire, and even romantic love, even while those are present and equally important and vivid.
What Howard accomplishes is to juggle conflict, internal and external, most adeptly. But the internal is paramount and this makes the mundane external, peripheral. Levi and Jina bond as team-members and fight their attraction, but they don’t have to fight their liking or loyalty and that deepens their feelings. Their integrity and understanding of what it means to be part of a team keep them apart and longing, satisfying even the pickiest romance reader. Jina’s honing of her own body to be able to belong to the team, every terrifying trial, test, wall scale and parachute-jump achieved render her worthier, more lovable, admirable, and adorable. We feel this way about her, Levi does, how can he not? and her team members too.
Then Howard throws the final mission, the final test, and betrayal into the mix. It’s heart-speeding-up thrilling, tense, agonizing in the reader’s worry for the characters she’s come to know and love. It’s Jina’s greatest triumph and the very thing that near-breaks her indomitable spirit. And the thing that breaks her isn’t the near-impossible physical challenge of the thing, but the realization of betrayal. Is Levi’s restitution sufficient? I was thoroughly satisfied by the HEA. Will every reader be? There’s only one way to find out. Because even if you aren’t, the journey is terrific. With Miss Austen, I’d say Linda Howard’s The Woman Left Behind is proof “there is no charm equal to tenderness of heart,” Emma.
Linda Howard’s The Woman Left Behind is published by William Morrow. It was released on March 6th and may be found at your preferred vendor. I received an e-ARC from William Morrow, via Edelweiss+.