Narrated by Karen White
John Shepherd and Jessica Harlow first met in Quantico, in training for their work as Special Agents with the FBI. It wasn’t a “meet cute” – it was a diametrically opposed in every way meet. John is 6 feet 4 inches of built badass, a former Ranger who ran circles around Jessica in the physical training (she is more than a foot shorter), but Jessica’s way with people and the law – in interviews and investigations, she is cool under pressure, using her experience as a lawyer – shows up John in the academic training. Although John tries to befriend her, based on the fact they are both from Chicago, she rebuffs him, remembering her recruiter’s advice about people wanting to not take her seriously, and she senses that any whiff of gossip about her and the “hot Ranger” will be her downfall. In fact, her cold shoulder to him, and his reaction to that, starts them down a competitive path of one-up-manship that lingers well beyond their eventual graduation.
Six years later, Jessica has just transferred back to the Chicago FBI office to work in Public Corruption, leaving Los Angeles after her divorce. John, currently in the Organized Crime squad, is just about to try out for Hostage Rescue Team, which had been his goal when he first entered the FBI, when he’s called in to work with the new agent (Jessica) on an undercover sting in Jacksonville, Florida. The mayor of Jacksonville is apparently lining his pockets with bribes from developers, so the local FBI has requested 2 “shady Chicago developers” to see if they can catch him red-handed. And now it’s game on for these 2 adversaries.
The combination of Julie James’ sophisticated + laugh-out-loud, layered and complex writing delivered by Karen White is truly one of my greatest audiobook pleasures, and we Julie James fans have had to wait two long years for a new fix. 2014’s It Happened One Wedding was James at her very best, and it’s a book I’ve listened to multiple times, not only for the the well-plotted story, the witty banter and the electric attraction between the protagonists, but also for the heart-melting ending. So I have to say, the bar was set very, very high for The Thing About Love. For me, it almost didn’t get there – I actually queued it up from the beginning and listened again, because I was so sure I was missing something. James is really excellent at writing seriously kickass and competent professional women – there are no Mary Sues or TSTL heroines in her books, ever, and this is no exception. Jessica may not be a physical match for John in a sparring match, but never fear, she takes him down hard anyway. I noticed on the second time through some things I missed – for instance, John hates engaging people in conversations while traveling; Jessica just right out states she’s an FBI agent to total strangers, just to get a distraction while flying. There were several subtle things like this throughout, which almost makes me wish I had read it in print first – to get some of those words in via my eyes before consuming it via my ears. It’s not uncommon for me to read first then listen, because I find that audiobooks enhance the experience so much (partly because I skim) but it’s different from reading, and not (just) because of the narrator’s performance. I had one other – sort of quibble? – with this book, and that was the amount of information dump about the details and jargon of FBI agents, which I found distracting – and if I had read it, I definitely would have skimmed over these parts. This book was longer than her other books, by about 2 hours/~100 pages, but I’m not sure if that was mostly character development or more back-story.
James really shines a light on the work/life balance in this story. Both John and Jessica have just gone through relationship crises, either caused by or exacerbated by their all-encompassing FBI careers. Both of them have to travel a lot, go undercover and assume other personas, sometimes for months at a time, and otherwise not be in control of their personal time. They each keep “go bags” packed and ready to leave at a moment’s notice, and they both missed important events in their partners’ lives. Whether these issues could have been overcome isn’t really part of the narrative, though – both first relationships have ended, and now each is alone. But they also understand the pressures and time required to devote to this job, so as the listener/reader, I guess I have to assume that the first relationship just wasn’t The One, and now love will overcome all.
Of course, I can always count on Karen White to deliver – her natural pacing, where it’s like she’s sitting next to you, just spinning a good yarn, makes listening to this a pleasure. She gives the Jacksonville mayor a good-old-boy Southern sound, without turning him into a cartoon, while both John and Jessica, as well as their parents, siblings, and friends, have no noticeable regional accents. She still manages to differentiate well without accents, so that it’s clear who is speaking when John and his buddies are talking together, and she has a believable contrast between the male and female characters. She also conveys a lot of emotion with her tone, in the bedroom as well as in the tense scenes with the Jacksonville mayor.
I did enjoy the story of John and Jessica, former adversaries who took the time to get to really know one another and explore the attraction between them. I know Julie James fans who haven’t already finished it are probably putting in extra driving time to get to the end, but I also think even first-timers to James’ unique storytelling will be entertained and will probably also fall in love with John and Jessica. We also got a few minutes “screen time” with some of the earlier James’ protagonists, which is always a bonus!
TITLE: The Thing About Love
AUTHOR: Julie James
NARRATED BY: Karen White
GENRE: Contemporary Romance
STEAM FACTOR: Glad I had my earbuds in
REVIEWER: MelindaBuy The Thing About Love by Julie James on Amazon