Ali Ryan is searching for clarity about her twin brother Liam—presumed dead in a bombing overseas, though she isn’t so sure because her twin instincts say otherwise—during her hike through the Hoh Rain Forest in the Pacific Northwest. A rare thunderstorm leaves her lost and nearly hypothermic when she collapses at the door of a remote cabin. Unbeknownst to her, the cabin is currently occupied by Joe Bob Blade, a country music heartthrob recovering from vocal cord surgery. Since he can’t talk, their only form of communication is through writing. The two of them connect as regular people over the course of a few days, but only give out sparse details of their identities. Just as the heat between them starts to flare, the man she only knows as JJ sends her back to civilization after resisting those sparks. As the months drag by, neither of them can forget their time in the forest together—but is Joe’s new chart-topping song enough to find Ali again?
Set in the mid-1990s, THE SILENT WOODSMAN carries a nostalgic undercurrent throughout, and the deliberate choice adds a realistic layer to the novel’s communication dramas. In a time without social media and widespread cell phone use, the reliance on phone books, email, radio, and tabloid magazines keeps Ali and JJ apart without too much contrivance. Fashion choices, pop culture references, and social and political commentary anchor the plot firmly in the time period, too. Also notable is the decade’s worrisome obsession with dieting and thinness, which crops up during dinner conversations with Ali’s best friend Becca and her mother, and JJ’s sister Teresa. And the song JJ eventually writes to find Ali—which becomes a mega-hit that takes over both the country and pop charts—feels exactly like something that would dominate the radio at the time; a catchy, heart-achy, yearning love confession with appropriately sappy-sweet lyrics.
Aside from the time period, the Pacific Northwest setting—specifically Washington, and its lush forestland and unique cities—is rendered with careful, passionate detail. Ali’s trek through dense, mossy rainforest, her calming connection in nature, feels the most immersive. That rustic cabin where the two of them find each other and its surrounding environs come alive off the page, adding another romantic element at the heart of their love story. Using both Ali’s and JJ’s perspectives to let their story unfold helps, especially in parts of the book where he can’t physically speak. It shows just how much the two of them pine for each other while they’re stuck inside this cabin together, and while they’re separated for months and months at a time. And absence does make the heart grow fonder, but it also plants seeds of doubt. There is great character development while they are apart. Ali struggles to figure out what she wants, but it’s a very relatable arc for her. And there’s some surprisingly emotional twists during the latter half of the book; Ali’s turmoil over her brother strikes a heart-wrenching chord underneath other plot developments. JJ struggles, too, with his voice and his on-again, off-again relationship with his duet partner Rina, and all of the pressures and lack of privacy that come with fame. Surrounded by a memorable cast of characters who watch this ongoing saga play out—with degrees of jealousy, amusement, frustration, and concern—somehow their paths keep crossing.
The pacing of the book sometimes seems uneven, especially as it covers a few years. It feels like Ali and JJ spend more time separated then they do together, so while their intense connection might conquer all, it does make the events of the third act feel a little rushed and over-the-top. But, overall, the sparks do fly, and the romance sizzles whenever these two are in a room together, especially if that room only has one bed.
Filled with 1990s nostalgia, Cat Treadgold’s THE SILENT WOODSMAN sizzles with an addictive “will they-won’t they” tension that starts from the moment of the main character’s fated meeting and doesn’t let up, making for a suspenseful romantic drama debut.
~Jessica Thomas for IndieReader