REVIEW: If You Leave by Courtney Cole
Dear Ms. Cole:
I felt uncomfortable while reading this book and not always in a good way. Madison Hill is a 25 year old former model who has given up her career to come home and take over the family restaurant after her parents’ death. She doesn’t really want to be in her small town, an hour north of Chicago along Lake Michigan, but she feels driven by this obligation to keep the family restaurant running.
26 year old Gabriel Vincent is an ex-Army Ranger who is plagued by his last mission in Afghanistan. He suffers from serious PTSD symptoms from black outs, panic attacks, and nightmares. His best friend, business partner, and fellow soldier is Brand who also suffered through the same mission, signed up for extensive PTSD therapy post deployment and is a better functioning man. But Gabriel is too good or too manly (or too dumb in my opinion) to get help. Gabriel’s worst fear is being weak and he equates the need for psychotherapy as a weakness. (Even though he would never apply the term to Brand).
Gabriel is another of those romance heroes who is presented as sexy but has a cornucopia of problematic issues. His first response to any conflict is violence. He sneers at those who don’t conform to his idea of “toughness.” For instance, when Madison is out on a date and the two are walking on a beach, they come across Gabriel. He is running and decides to step in a puddle and splash Madison’s date. Madison’s date protests and Gabriel calls him a “candy ass.” I don’t think that the date is candy assed. I think Gabriel is a self important asshole in this scene. Yet, I’m supposed to take from this that the date is the weakling and Gabriel is the real man.
He also splashes through a tiny pool of water, which splatters Ethan’s pants in muddy droplets.
“Hey, dude,” Ethan protests, turning to glare after Gabriel. “Watch what you’re doing.”
I’m surprised that Ethan would say anything at all because it was clearly an accident, but I’m equally surprised when Gabriel stops, turns and walks back to us, sweat glistening on his brow. Hell.
“What did you say?” he asks incredulously. Apparently he’s surprised too.
Ethan seems hesitant now that he’s face-to-face with Gabe.
“I said watch it,” he says, quieter now. “You got mud on my pants.”
“Did I now?” Gabe rolls his eyes. “I apologize. I apologize that you’re a candy-ass who doesn’t like to get dirty.”
The gender roles are strong throughout the story. There is a scene with Pax, her brother in law, and a baby wherein Pax is unable to put on a diaper but Maddy is. Neither appeared to have more prior baby experience than the other. Men are supposed to stand up for the women and if they don’t, they are lesser. In another scene, Ethan is standing beside Maddy when she is verbally assaulted by the guy she ejected from her restaurant. Maddy is upset that Ethan didn’t step between the two of them which is confusing because in a previous scene she wanted to handle something herself.
When Madison suggests that Gabriel not engage in violent behavior with another customer, Gabriel looks at her like she’s crazy and later Gabriel and Madison’s brother in law (the hero of book 1) talk about how Madison “bitched” Gabriel out. Telling Gabriel that she doesn’t appreciate him getting physical with a customer at her restaurant is “bitching” someone out? Maybe I was supposed to smile and think, this is really manly banter, but again, I didn’t find it so.
Let me show you the exchange between Maddie and Gabriel:
“Was that really necessary?” she asks. “I was going to call the cops. Violence really wasn’t appropriate. I have customers here.”
I stare at her in shock. “I thought you’d be happy that I removed him from your dining room.”
“You thought wrong. I had the situation under control.”
I’m astounded now. “Oh, really? And how exactly were you controlling it? By threatening to call the police? Assholes like that don’t listen to reason, Madison. You have to speak in the language that they understand.”
“Well, I’m sure you’re fluent in asshole-speak.” Madison stares at me icily for a moment longer, then spins around and stalks off.
and then between Gabriel and Pax:
“That does sound like Madison. She wouldn’t want to give Mila any ammunition. Was she mad that you dared to show up at her restaurant or what?”
I nod, hooking the bar into the rungs again, then pausing to catch my breath. “Apparently.”
“Typical Madison,” Pax chuckles. “But deep down she’s sweet, once you get past her outer bitchiness. I heard her bitch at you for the Jared thing. I probably shouldn’t say anything, but she’s got hang-ups with that shit so don’t take it personally. Mila and Madison’s dad used to knock their mom around so she’s got a thing about any kind of violence at all.”
I understood what characterization was being attempted here and from the other reviews, it was largely successful for most readers. For me, however, I felt that the characterization for the “heroes” in the story was based primarily on their physical dominance over others and their willingness to mete out punishment for any perceived slight. I mostly felt sorry for Madison and hoped she would find someone else.
I was also a bit surprised at Madison’s dimness as it relates to Gabriel’s PTSD. He refers to coming back from the war with issues. She’s puzzled about what those are but has witnessed blackouts, nightmares, and other classic PTSD behaviors. Perhaps wrapped up in the restaurant business, Madison is completely insulated from any newspaper or television reports about the damage suffered, both physically and emotionally by returning veterans, although I think that is a generous reading.
Gabriel’s trauma should have been sympathetic and while I liked Madison somewhat, I felt she was a tad to passive. I get that she through Gabe was a protector and she liked the idea of that – having been without someone like that in her life. I’m perfectly fine reading a more traditional message but she forgave things too easily in order to have Gabriel back in her life. There was a glimpse of something interesting early in the text when Madison recognizes Gabriel as being the type of guy she’s always attracted to but always ends up hurting her. The resolution of this particular character arc isn’t Madison learning to love someone who is good for her and not repeating bad relationship choices but rather having Gabriel shave off the sharp and hurtful edges to his character.
There was quite a bit of showing through verbal dialogue dumps from Madison’s past and how it affected her current behavior to Gabriel’s PTSD issues. The redemption part of the story was fairly heavy handed and somewhat lacking in believability given the extent of Gabriel’s psychosis. The sex scenes were well done and the story does turn a slight corner about 75% of the way through. In the end, all I could think of was this — Splashing someone’s pants is a douche move, bro. C-