Once in a while a book comes along and surprises you. The Top Gun's Return is one of these books. With a title like that, one expects a clichéd romance with the requisite studly, type-A military guy. It turned out to be nothing of the sort.
Jessie Bauer's life changed irrevocably eight years ago when her military pilot husband, Tristan, was shot down during the Gulf War. Tristan was declared dead by the Navy and Jessie found herself raising their pre-teen daughter Sammi June by herself. Jessie did the best she could, going back to school and becoming a neonatal intensive care nurse. Her life is settled and she's getting ready to send her daughter off to college.
That's when she receives the news that Tristan isn't dead after all. A mission to rescue a captured AP reporter in Iraq finds a devastated Tristan as well. Tristan, who has spent the last eight years with Jessie as the only bright spot amongst the horror, is worries that she will no longer want the man he has become.
Tristan is not the only one who has changed, either. Jessie is no longer the malleable, dependent girl she was when they were married. She had to grow up and learn to depend on herself. When she goes to meet Tristan in Germany, where he is under medical care, it's apparent that the two of them will have to get to know each other all over again.
I fear I am doing a disservice describing the plot of this novel. It sounds very dry and dull, but it's actually a very moving, realistic story about two people having to deal with the emotional impact of their situation. This isn't a light romance, with the hero and heroine secretly lusting over one another until they eventually get in the sack. Jessie and Tristan not only have a past together but each of them has a span of eight years where they had to become other people. They need to reconcile them both before moving on to the future.
The author never rushes this process, which would make it seem false. She doesn't, however, let the serious topic bog down the story with too much angst. She adds just enough pleasant, romantic touches lighten the mood without trivializing it, for example, Jessie teasing Tristan about his "hound dog" appetite.
Jessie's growth works very well. One can honestly see how she has changed from the pregnant student she was and the woman she is today. Having to deal with Tristan's "death" made her grown up and learn to rely on herself. This attitude continues with Tristan's return. Although at times she thinks things to herself that she should be saying to Tristan, such as being strong enough to deal with his issues, but for the most part she does not allow herself to fall into her former roles.
Tristan can be a bit pigheaded at times, his refusal to go to therapy was particularly annoying given what he'd been through. Still, without having any experience in that type of trauma, one can't say how a person would react. It's entirely possible his reactions are totally normal.
What really makes this story though is the emotion. There were several times where I got choked up reading about a success or particularly difficult moment in Tristan's recovery. The depth of the emotion is what really makes the reader get behind Tristan and Jessie, wanting them to succeed and rise above the years that were taken from them.
The only real issue I had with the book was the subplot involving Sammi June. Understandably, she is part of the story as her life was affected as well, but the way she was given a relationship was almost distracting. It was undeniably the weakest part of the book. Otherwise, The Top Gun's Return is a true, and honest story about two people getting their lives back.