Jen Bayou Hero
by Marilyn Pappano Publisher
: HarlequinPublication Date
: January 6th 2015 Genres: Romantic Suspense Pages:
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In this book from USA TODAY bestselling author Marilyn Pappano, one family's scandal is responsible for a rising body count…
Even for an experienced NCIS agent like Alia Kingsley, the murder scene is particularly gruesome. Someone killed in a fit of rage. Being the long-estranged son of the deceased, Landry Jackson quickly becomes a person of interest. But does Landry loathe his father as much as the feds suspect?
It's clear to Alia that Landry Jackson has secrets, but his hatred for his father isn't one of them. Alia feels sure Landry isn't the killer, but once more family members start dying, she's forced to question herself. What if the fierce attraction between her and Landry has compromised Alia's instincts?
I haven’t been able to get this book out of my head for DAYS, and I’ve been sitting on this review, trying to balance my desire to tell someone about this ambitious book with my uncertainty about how I really feel about parts of it. This is a good book…possibly even a great book, but it’s complicated, so this review is gonna be long!
Let me start out with a huge trigger warning: This book deals with the rape of children. There is nothing graphic, but this issue is THERE in a painful and persistent way through much of the book. So, take care!
Alia is an NCIS investigator assigned to look into the murder of an Admiral in New Orleans. He and some of his household staff were brutally stabbed. His son Landry absolutely hated his father, so he is naturally a suspect. When other people connected to the family start showing up dead, too, Alia and Landry start to realize the killings are connected to the family’s dirty secrets.
What did I like?
- Alia is tough and smart and I want to know her in real life! I love her dedication to her job, her occasional gallows humor, her good-natured bickering with her ex husband, her quiet support for Landry, and her love for food. She’s also part Vietnamese and her heritage actually seems like a part of her life, not just window dressing. She brings a much needed lightness to the book, and I loved her.
- Even though we never “meet” Alia’s family in person I loved them too, based on a couple short phone conversations and what we know of them from Alia. I thought it was so important to get an example of a healthy family (and a healthy military family, at that) to contrast with the sick dynamics of Landry’s family. Alia’s parents aren’t perfect, but they love her unconditionally and support their daughter in her endeavors without trying to be overprotective or bossy. Hooray for functional families!
- It’s set in New Orleans and uses that city to excellent advantage. The sticky heat, the hidden wealth behind the wrought iron gates, the amazing food, the tourists who come without seeing the real city…all of it is evocative without being some kind of caricature of New Orleans.
- There is no instalust, no lightning bolts from the sky, no uncontrollable pants feelings. Alia and Landry act like two normal people who at first can’t trust each other for very legitimate reasons. The attraction builds slowly, and even once they start spending social time together they move slowly because of Alia’s job investigating Landry’s dad’s murder. (The romance does still move pretty fast in terms of actual days, but in page numbers it’s well paced.)
- THEY DON’T CREATE A CONFLICT OF INTEREST BY SLEEPING TOGETHER! Yes I am yelling because I am not sure I can think of another romantic suspense I’ve read, and I read a lot of them, where the solution that Alia and Landry use here has ever come up. I won’t tell you what the solution is, but it is mature and responsible and why the fuck have I never seen it before?
- I haven’t mentioned Landry yet. Don’t get me wrong, I liked him too, though maybe not as much as Alia. What I did appreciate about him is that he isn’t afraid of his feelings for Alia. He knows he feels something serious for her, and he knows he wants it to be long term. He isn’t a closed off, broody a-hole, which would have been the easy route to take with this character.
And now for some very spoilery discussion, because this gets at the heart of why I wasn’t sure exactly how to feel about parts of this book.
As a child, Landry was repeatedly raped by a group of his father’s male friends for years before escaping with the help of a distant relative. The friends actually traded their kids around as sex objects; Landry’s younger sister and all the male and female children of the friends were also raped routinely. It is completely horrifying and disgusting, and reading about it made me nauseous. There aren’t any graphic descriptions at all, but Landry’s pain is excruciating to read about.
I’m always leery of books that use rape as a backstory or sensational plot, and it’s hard to escape the fact that the rapes do add a level of sensationalism to the story, although I think the author is careful to portray it as the awful crime it is. On the other hand, there are almost no romances where the hero is the one who was raped, and I worry it’s because authors and readers think it makes the hero seem less manly. So perhaps this is a story that is important to tell, if it’s done properly.
Part of why I hesitated to write this review was because I was going over all the details in my mind searching for mishandling of this topic. Overall, I do think the sexual abuse was handled sensitively. Landry certainly has issues, but he is able to have a largely functional life and build relationships with other people. The book makes it crystal clear he doesn’t do it on his own, though. He needs years of therapy with a skilled doctor, and even then he is still struggling with certain things. He has heartbreaking moments where he feels ashamed or angry at himself, though he talks himself down from those moments by recalling his therapist’s advice. And most importantly, Alia and the other characters in the book don’t treat Landry as less-than because of his trauma. To my untrained eyes, it felt respectfully handled.
So why my complicated feelings? Most of my hesitation was due to the killer. I could see it coming, and I didn’t like it. The killer had their own very serious mental health issues, which were less gracefully handled. Was it too cartoonish? Was it a cheap “crazy killer” cop out? Was it just there for sensationalism? I’m honestly not sure, but I do know that I didn’t want that character to be the killer. While Alia and Landry get a happy ending, nobody else really does.
To be honest, I am impressed with Pappano and Harlequin for even trying to tell a story like this, because I sure as hell did not expect this when I picked up the book! This was much deeper, more nuanced, and more gut wrenching than your average category romance. While I’m still not exactly sure how I feel about some elements, I am not sorry I read it.
Grade: 4.25 out of 5