|One time when I was browsing the paperback racks at my public library as I am wont to do, I spied a men’s adventure novel. You know the type: the covers feature a bulging muscled hero armed to the teeth with things exploding in the background and a couple of babes with enormous bazooms tucked into a corner gazing adoringly at him. Curiosity won me over, and I checked it out. The cover illustration pretty much represented the story line: lots of manly combat, vast areas of real estate blown up, a couple of scenes of gratuitous sex to prove that the hero has all his testosterone pointed in the right direction – I remember something along the lines of “pumping her full of boiling lava.” Thin plot, thinner character development, inflated body parts, and not much else.
My reaction was, “Do men really think like this?”
So I had to wonder how romance writer Jennifer Crusie teaming up with men’s action author Bob Mayer to write Don’t Look Down was going to work. It’s not as though romances are unfamiliar with the Army Special Forces alpha-male type hero. It’s not as though Crusie needs an assist to make the big time because she’s already one of the top tier authors in the romance genre. Perhaps she wanted the challenge of working with a co-author, or perhaps they were hoping to appeal to both male and female readers. (Check out the unusual packaging: the chick lit dust jacket and the macho camo print on the book cover.) The result of this cross-genre teaming, however, is likely to turn off all readers regardless of gender.
The book’s plot is a hodgepodge with its various elements loosely strung together; the pacing is frequently awkward with bumpy segues. Moreover, character motivation is practically non-existent. The book is at its best in those sections where the offbeat humor flows naturally rather than being forced as it is in some of the more painful passages.
Lucy Armstrong is a director whose experience is primarily in shooting advertising spots, particularly for dog food. When the director on a movie being filmed in the Savannah Wildlife Refuge (which is located in both South Carolina and Georgia) drops dead of a heart attack, Lucy is recruited by her younger sister Daisy and adorable five-year-old niece Pepper to step in to complete the project.
Lucy’s ex-husband Connor Nash is the stunt coordinator on the set. At a financial backer’s insistence, Lucy is on a tight time line to film the last few scenes which involve stunts with helicopters, cars, and bridges. These scenes make little sense to her because the remainder of the story is a romantic comedy, the military stunts having been tacked on at the end.
The male lead is Bryce McKay. He personally hires Captain J. T. Wilder, a member of the Army’s elite Special Forces, to help him with the aerial stunts. J. T. is reluctant because he recognizes the disorganization on the set ... which he identifies in pithy military jargon. J. T. and Lucy are immediately attracted even though they both try to ignore it. J. T. learns that his presence on the movie set is not as accidental as he’d thought. The CIA has arranged for him to be there because they’re hoping to capture an elusive terrorist.
Meanwhile, Lucy’s worried about her sister and niece, there’s lots of bed-hopping going on, Pepper sights both a one-eyed alligator in the swamp and a secretive figure she calls a ghost, and someone is unhappy that J. T. is around.
This synopsis is cursory because the central plot of Don’t Look Down is less than the sum of its subplots. There’s one subplot about an Irish terrorist who is using the movie to launder money that seems partly an excuse to make jokes about jade phalluses. Another subplot concerns Pepper’s fascination with Wonder Woman providing multiple opportunities for five-year-old too-too cuteness but doesn’t help advance the story line. There are scenes in bars and a strip club that must have something to do with that testosterone thing because they have little to do with anything else. And if those weren’t enough, the ending completely betrays fiction’s tradition of wrapping up and explaining all the inexplicable elements introduced in the story.
You’re noticing I haven’t mentioned the romance. That’s because the romance – or what passes for romance – is thrown in mostly as an afterthought. J. T. and Lucy are a mismatch; there’s more depth of feeling between each of them and Pepper. Because the romance genre generally requires it, they decide they have a future, but with two ex-wives in his past, J. T.’s concept of future may not be very long-term.
All in all, Don’t Look Down is not in the caliber of Jennifer Crusie’s previous novels. A tauter, more focused plot is badly needed, and the character development is thinner than tissue paper. If you’re looking for a good Crusie book, don’t look down ... look up some of her earlier titles.