I picked up this book because the premise was TOTALLY kick ass. The heroine and hero are pen pals while he's on deployment, and get to know one another via email. When he returns home, they are already emotionally connected, but haven't ever met.
The book suffered from a few problems that bothered me enough to stop reading:
First, the heroine, Maureen, is idealistic to the point where I couldn't believe she was real. She's a secretary at a publishing company with an evil boss — who in the first nearly-half of the book is never seen, but we're told she's evil so when the heroine is checking her personal email at work she is very furtive about it… and yet Maureen always gets caught by her nebby and noxious coworker, Tiffany.
If you guessed that Tiffany is blonde, gorgeous, and shallow, you win. I do not know what you win but you win something.
Maureen is secretly an erotic romance author, and she's also a pen pal to several deployed soldiers. She's super nice and generous, sending cases of coffee and other much-needed items to Iraq for soldiers.
She has a Sassy Gay Best Friend, and in the course of the novel they decide to do a double-dating challenge where they each find men for one another to date and go out all four together. Or something. The dialogue was so cliche I skimmed a lot of it. It didn't seem like real people talking to me, and that's something that yanks me out of a story within seconds. When the characters start speaking in plot, I have a hard time paying attention because I've stopped believing they are people.
The other problem I had with Maureen was that she was entirely and utterly idealistic about military service people. Name a cliche and it's in there in her description of men she corresponds with. Plus, the way she described her correspondence relationships with them made her seem as if her entire day consisted of going to work, sending email, sending packages, talking to Tiffany, and talking or dating with her Sassy Gay Best Friend, then repeat the next day. When Maureen is implored by Tiffany to share the site where she's found pen pals on deployment:
Maureen pictured her own tiny, cluttered apartment. The stacks of old paperbacks she had purchased at the library’s used book sale waiting to be sent to the deployed troops. The empty cardboard boxes and padded mailing envelopes waiting to be filled that cascaded out of the closet whenever she opened the door. The fact a roll of packing tape and a stack of shipping forms resided permanently on her kitchen counter, and her postal clerk dreaded seeing her coming through the door with an armload of packages to be sent overseas. The sad reality that her bank account was much emptier since she’d begun spending a small fortune on postage as well as books, snacks, rubber shower shoes, phone cards and toiletries that the troops needed but couldn’t get where they were deployed.
And Tiffany expected to simply be handed a list of addresses so she could meet some soldiers and flirt with them? Gorgeous Tiffany with her blonde hair, long legs and perfect everything else in between. Tiffany, who sometimes juggled two dates in one day when Maureen more often than not had none…or had one that was better off forgotten. Maureen bit her lip to control what she really wanted to say and instead blurted, “Fine.”
This doesn't make me admire Maureen. I lost patience with her. I don't understand what she's getting out of her effort to correspond and sponsor soldiers – and I've sponsored troops abroad before. She's just giving and giving and it doesn't seem to be based on anything but Maureen's own neuroses and desire to worry about and mother soldiers abroad.
She doesn't express any reason that this project is important to her except that “it is,” and it's hard to understand Maureen's motivation without explanation. It allows me to think that she's admiring herself through her own generosity, and how is that any better than Tiffany's openly expressed desire to hook up with any pen pals who have posted pictures that she finds attractive?
Anyway. Maureen's pen pal is a guy named Jazzy who gets injured, and his commanding officer, John Blake, emails Maureen on Jazzy's behalf to let her know he's in the hospital but that he'll be ok. They begin corresponding, despite John's somewhat disapproving view of Maureen, her profession as an erotic romance novelist, and Jazzy's enthusiasm for his friendship with Maureen.
This is where the book went off the rails for me. Maureen begins emailing with John, and he emails back. She keeps a blog of her dating misadventures and her email details her experience judging a writer's contest for paranormal erotic romance, and he reads both. They set up a sort of casual flirtation. Then he's fantasizing about her, and she's fantasizing about him, and then, all of a sudden, at 45% of the way through the book, after a handful of email messages and maybe two or three chapters, I hit this:
The soft chime heralded a new email as a pop-up balloon that read, You have a new email from SSgt John Blake appeared on screen. Maureen scurried to open it. Her heart skipped a beat, and she felt a smile cross her face just anticipating reading his words. Then three words popped into her head that stopped Maureen dead in her tracks and wiped the smile from her face. I love him.
She sat in shock and stared at the screen of her computer as the ramifications of the unbidden thought sunk in. They had only been corresponding for a few weeks. They had been innocently flirting—all right, maybe not so innocently—for far less time than that. How could she feel this way? She’d never even met the man.
YES. Exactly. I don't believe in this woman's intelligence or her own ability to recognize her emotions accurately. The story has set her up to be more of a soldier-obsessed over-generous love-giving addict than a person who thinks for herself and understands her own emotions and motivations. And if she DID love him, where was the part where those feelings developed? It wasn't in the book that I saw – where did it go?
Part of why I love reading romance is watching people who might not fit suddenly find that they do. I love watching the changing emotions, the “wait a minute” moments where someone realizes that their perspective was wrong, or doesn't fit anymore, or they've discovered something new about themselves. I don't love it when the POV shifts because one of the characters got a big ol' makeover and suddenly she's hot, but I do love when people see one another in a new way. I generally enjoy moments like Maureen realizing in shock something about her own feelings.
But I have to believe in why that shift happens. Skipping that emotional build, and jumping past the journey to the payoff just makes me irritable. I'd be happier if the couple didn't ever say that they loved one another if the actions leading up to the happy ending made it clear they did. For me, in this case, getting to the 'OMG I love him' part so quickly is emotions in service to the plot more than it is actual realistic development. “We have to love each other! It's time for you to come home so we can start making out!”
This isn't to say that people can't fall in love quickly or recognize they've met someone special almost immediately. Sometimes people do indeed just “click.” But in this case, the heroine goes from a few paragraphs of correspondence to “OMG I LURRRRVE™ him.”
My immediate response was to roll my eyes and think, “Oh, shut up, heroine. You do not. I don't see it. What are you talking about?”
If there's room for me to argue with her, the build up wasn't sufficient. There's no foundation for me to believe that they're actually feeling what they say they are. It's the emotional version of telling not showing. I'm told she feels this way but I have no idea WHY.
I loved the scenes between John and the soldiers in his command, and I liked all the scenes where they were teasing each other or going out on assignment – Johnson writes some very tense action in this book. Seeing their patrols from John's perspective was suspenseful and a bit nervewracking at times. I liked John and I read closely every scene he was in, but Maureen was too perfect and too one-dimensional a character. Her interactions with her Sassy Gay Best Friend and with Tiffany were not sufficient for me to keep going.
I love the idea of long distance emotional relationships developing before two people have never met, and I was super curious about this book, even though I know that flirtatious and romantic relationships are severely frowned upon in soldier sponsorship organizations. The setup was so incredibly alluring, but the execution, and the flatness of the heroine kept me from finishing it.