There is a whole lineup of Suzanne Brockmann's Navy SEAL romances, and, in one of the most innovative moves of a romance writer, there's one love story that runs in the background of just about all of them. The ongoing background story of Sam and Alyssa – and the fact that it doesn't get dull – is one of the Brockmann’s strengths, and I'm a total sucker for that story alone.
Another thing I'm a sucker for? Hot men in uniform brought to tears by the Power of Love™. I don't think it's a spoiler to point out this facet of Brockmann's male characters: they are alpha males, highly trained, physically fit and macho, but they cry. In all three of the SEAL novels I've read, there's male tears, and as much as I've come to expect this device from Brockmann, it doesn't get old.
The Unsung Hero is one of the earliest, if not the first, SEAL novel from Brockmann. I've found conflicting reports online as to which of her SEAL novels came first, so I'm going to leave it to someone out there to correct me. I read in an RWR (that's the Romance Writer's Report, the monthly magazine of the Romance Writers of America) that at the time she started submitting her novels to editors, the publishing world was holding on to the idea that romances about the military or professional sports figures were utterly useless and would never sell. Susan Elizabeth Phillips' football players and Brockmann's SEALS put an end to that balderdash soon enough, and now there's no shortage of military romances, particularly over the past five years.
If military romances are your thing, or if alpha heroes that actually grow and come to terms with their emotions for the heroine are one of your literary turn-ons, I recommend Brockmann's novels. The balance of an alpha hero is difficult and it is all too often that I find an alpha hero who bases his alpha-ness on being a complete bastard to everyone near him, particularly the heroine. Brockmann's badasses are badasses because they are highly trained, elite members of the military, and know that they put the bad in, well, badass.
Think I ought to get around to the plot anytime soon? Yeah, sure, ok.
The Unsung Hero has four stories entwined in the plot – yup, you read that right. Four. The main story is the romance between Lieutenant Tom Paoletti and Dr. Kelly Ashton. Paoletti spend key moments of his badass teenage years prior to his enlisting in the Navy living on the Ashton estate outside of Boston. His uncle, Joe, was Kelly's father gardener, and young Tom had it bad for Kelly, who had it equally bad for him. After a hot and horny kiss and an invitation to meet later in the treehouse (and how on earth that would be comfortable is beyond me) Paoletti smells the coffee before he climbs that treehouse ladder, realizes that young Kelly is jailbait, and hightails it out of town, joining the Navy and spending the next sixteen years ascending through the ranks to commander of an elite SEAL team.
In the beginning of the novel, Lt. Paoletti sustains one mother of a head injury and is placed on a month's medical leave pending psychological evaluation. As he flies into Logan to spend his leave with his uncle Joe on the Ashton estate, he thinks he sees an international terrorist in the baggage claim, and is convinced that either he's just seen the impossible, or his head injury has rendered him utterly insane.
Now, as an aside, I completely believe that there are terrorists in Logan airport. Hell, two of the September 11th flights took off from Logan, and one from Newark, the airport I fly in and out of regularly. So there was no suspension of reality required on my part that a terrorist would be claiming his luggage at Logan, though in this novel, the idea that Lt. Paoletti may or may not be non compos mentis is part of the tension in the plot.
Dr. Kelly Ashton has come home to live with her father, Charles, who has been diagnosed with “cancer of the everywhere” and is trying to reconnect with him emotionally as he lives out his last weeks. Charles is in the midst of a doozy of a fight with his gardener and best friend, Joe Paoletti, Tom's uncle. The 50th anniversary of the Fighting 55th Regiment's battle in Nazi-occupied France is being celebrated by their town the following week, and Joe is participating in a newspaper interview about the heroic rescue of the 55th, made possible by OSS spies living and hiding in the occupied French town of St. Helene.
Kelly and Tom don't know what to make of the ongoing battle between Joe and Charles, who have been friends for 50 years any more than they know what to make of the electric attraction between them. Neither was aware of Joe and Charles' roles in the battle that marked a turning point in WWII, or that Joe and Charles had even been in France during the war. Neither man is speaking about it, or speaking to each other for that matter, leaving Tom and Kelly to try to manage Charles' health, Joe's sudden temper, and their own emotional storms. As the novel progresses, Joe and Charles reminisce about the events leading up to the 55th Regiment's battle with the Nazis, and the reasons why neither man ever spoke of the war after they returned to Boston together, Charles to his ancestral home, and Joe as his newly-hired gardener and already-established best friend.
The third story operating between Kelly, Tom, Joe, and Charles is that of Tom's niece, Mallory, who is followed in the park one day by a shy, geeky young college student named David Sullivan who wants to photograph and sketch Mallory for his graphic novel. Mallory is the daughter of the town ho, and as such is wary of anyone who shows interest in her, assuming the allure is her physique, a feature that she inherited from her mother, and the idea that she might be an easy conquest, a habit that she did not inherit from her mother. Since David wants Mallory to pose in a bikini with another attractive college student, Mallory is first suspicious, then intrigued. Their story is an adorable encounter of young love between two people who are just beginning to define who they are, and who they want to be.
The plot that pulls these three stories together is that of a terrorist possibly on the loose in a small Boston suburb. As Lt. Paoletti encounters this man several times over the span of a week, he begins to believe that his suspicious are correct, and a terrorist presumed dead for years has surfaced. But since Tom can't pinpoint why this man has surfaced, what he wants, or why he's there, and he can't cull together sufficient evidence to convince his superiors that the situation warrants attention and immediate action, Tom is forced to both question his own sanity and ability to lead his team of SEALS, and to pull together a makeshift team of any and all available officers who are willing to sacrifice their time off to come to his aid.
And herein begins the story of Sam and Alyssa, which I first encountered in a later novel, after Sam and Alyssa had acknowledged and done some horizontal damage to attempt to alleviate the explosive attraction between them. Sam Starrett and Alyssa Locke are part of Tom's assembled team, and watching the beginning of a relationship that I already knew would carry forward into the backstories of subsequent novels before climaxing in a novel of their own was both a pleasure in terms of the entertainment, and a lesson in how a good writer keeps the reader interested. I know novels like the Outlander series carry backstories forward into other works that focus on other couples, but this was my first encounter with a plotline that I knew would continue for several volumes, and seeing its inception was lovely. If it was indeed the inception of the Sam and Alyssa storyline – as I said, I found conflicting reports about which novel marked the “start” of the plot.
The terrorist story drives the Sam & Alyssa, Mallory & David, Joe & Charles, and Tom & Kelly stories sufficiently with enough pace and twisty turns to keep me interested, and I started this book on the airplane from the Dominican Republic on Friday, and finished it early Sunday morning, after tackling a botched pickup at the airport, and then coming home to a house with no heat, and a delayed trip to pick up the dog at the boarders. If I'd been on vacation still, I could have read through this book in an afternoon, not because it was easy, but because the plot was tough and scary and demanded my attention. I never got distracted or confused, even though names like “Tom,” “Joe,” and “Charles” are rather bland and can easily get mixed up before one comes to know the characters.
However, the strengths of the plot are not enough to cover two flaws that prevent me from giving this book an A rating. One, too many romance novels rely on a “big misunderstanding” device to push the heroine and hero apart and then together again. Kelly and Joe suffer something of a “big misunderstanding” plotline in the late middle of the book, mostly because both people neglect to be honest about their feelings, even though they've been honest and downright forthcoming about other issues, including Tom's possible sighting of a terrorist in town, and his fears that his head injury has scrambled his mental eggs.
Second, I could tell the minute the full plot was divulged exactly why the sighted terrorist might have found motivation to be in a sleepy Boston suburb, and I had a hard time accepting why Tom didn't also immediately identify the motive. I mean, if this guy is smart enough to extract politically connected socialites form hostile countries with a Plan Alpha, and a Plan Beta, how'd he miss such an obvious reason for a terrorist to be in town? I won't say more, but the fact that the hero, a military leader, had such a giant blind spot for the sake of plot development did not sit well with me. But then, I get pissed off when television show characters do things I find inconsistent with their personalities, and spend a lot of time yelling a the screen.
However, the themes of the novel, and the characters themselves were enough to ensure that, unlike some of the books I brought with me, this book came back home with me, and was not donated to the resort library. Brockmann's exploration of love, risk, choice, heroism and bravery in everyday and in exceptional circumstances was fascinating, and I'm going to rearrange my BooksFree queue to include some of the other books in the “Tall, Dark, and Dangerous” series.