“The Thing About Love” by Julie James is a believable mystery whose strengths is the character interaction. Presenting both the male and the female differing points of view of certain events will remind readers of the classic book “Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus” by John Gray. Beyond that, this novel combines a mysterious plot, some romance, and a realistic look at the undercover world of FBI agents.
During their training rookie FBI agents Jessica Harlow and John Shepherd are constantly butting heads. Following misinterpreted motives and misunderstandings they became fierce competitors. After graduating they both go their separate ways, until six years later when they are picked to work together as partners on an undercover assignment. Being paired with a former rival comes at the worst time since Jessica is finalizing a divorce and John has just broken up with his long time girlfriend. Their assignment is to nail a Florida politician for taking bribes.
Throughout the story readers learn some very interesting facts about the life of an FBI undercover agent. The details about their job and career surprisingly have many comparisons to those serving in the military, besides the obvious, defending their country. There is a unit called the Hostage Rescue Team (HRT) that has a two-week selective process that appears to be as grilling as hell week for the SEALs. They have to scale a narrow ladder 75 feet above the ground, walking blindfolded underwater for seventy-five feet while caring a thirty-pound weight, running with a large raft to a lake, and being sleep deprived, getting no more than two hours each night.
Realizing there is a similar analogy, James noted, “I wrote how those trying out for the HRT are recruited from the military, for me, the civilian equivalent to the special forces.
“An FBI undercover agent interviewed told me how in his class there were only two females, which I put in the story,” James said. “I researched the army and FBI on their websites as well as public forums. I knew that John, who was an Army Ranger, would whiz through the physical stuff and the firearm challenges. Also, I wanted to show how undercover work is hard on relationships. Jessica and John had a failed relationship because the other person could not handle the mental toll or the lifestyle. Both were gone a significant amount of time, while their main focus was on the case. Since they could not talk about it the other person feels blocked out to a whole part of their life.”
The main character Jessica a petite woman of 5-feet-3-inches, feels she must prove herself in a man’s world, being only one of two in the class of forty-one. A powerful quote about her feelings while training in Quantico hammers the point home, “As a female in a profession where over eighty percent of her colleagues were men, and an even greater percentage of her supervisors… getting others to see her not as a ‘female special agent’ but as a special agent who happened to be a woman.” The statistic of 20 percent women in the FBI compares to the 15 percent women in the U.S. military. Yet, in both fields the women never down play their gender.
“She wants just to be viewed as a special agent like anyone else, capable of doing the job,” James said. “She is not pretending to be one of the guys and yes, is proud of being a woman. I think she wants to make sure she is not excluded from a case because of her sex. Yet, in some cases using her femininity could be an advantage. The book is about her proving herself, and I made sure not to put any scenes where she is viewed as a damsel in distress.”
Although learning about and understanding the profession was intricate to the story, a Julie James novel will always have competitive, elegant and witty-smart characters. This book is no different, having the characters initially appearing to be as different as night and day. Jessica is from Stanford law school. John, a former Army Ranger, is handsome and athletic with a commanding, masculine impression. The banter between the FBI training recruits enhances the story, as they give each other quips, sarcasm, and dirty looks. Their personality clash has a lot to do with the competitive nature of each. But through the course of the novel the realization takes place that there is mutual respect and their quips become talk, the sarcasm becomes laughter and joking, and the dirty looks become desire. They also begin to realize they are similar in many ways: determined, committed to their work, confident, and honorable.
“Regarding the banter, I do love the sarcasm,” James said. “I go back to the black and white romantic comedies like the ‘Philadelphia Story,’ where a man and a woman can have something happen where the guy and the gal see it in completely different ways. Pretty early on I decided to have a he said-she said chapter.”
This is a classic romantic mystery. There is plenty of humor and action with well-developed characters that are likable and relatable. The witty, snappy dialogue adds to the story and creates a wonderful chemistry between the characters. If this will be your first James book it should not be your last.