REVIEW: Baby, Come Back by M. O’Keefe
Dear Ms. O’Keefe,
Your latest release, Baby, Come Back, arrived in my inbox unsolicited. I had no plans to read it, since I had been disappointed in Burn Down the Night and since I had not read the companion book to Baby, Come Back, Bad Neighbor. Still, one night when I was bored and unable to stick with any of several kindle samples, I downloaded your ARC to my iPad and started reading. One chapter and I was hooked.
Abby and her co-workers, Maria and Sun-hee, sell shots of vodka at different nightclubs. One night they are sent to the Moonlight Lounge, a new place with a distinctly chilly vibe, and they sense that something is off.
A cold guy named Bates shows up at the club and explains that the venue is new and the kinks haven’t been worked out yet. Abby later spots a second man, quietly reading in the corner of the bar. Abby is immediately attracted to the Reader, as she thinks of him, and she can tell that the Reader feels something, too, but he pretends otherwise.
While the women get into their clothes and makeup, Sun-hee shares a rumor that Lazarus, the club’s owner, is a mobster, and so are the men who work for him. Abby doesn’t want to believe it, though.
That night, while she works, Abby senses the Reader’s eyes on her, but when she tries to approach him, he remains cool and disinterested.
The next night, Abby manages to strike up a conversation with him because she happens to have read the book he is focused on. Unexpectedly, they connect, and she learns that his name is Jack. But just when Abby thinks there might be a hook up with Jack in her future, he warns her that neither the club nor he are for her, and rejects her again.
Later that night, he leaves the club. Abby has a premonition that he shouldn’t go, and when he returns hours later, she follows him into the bathroom.
The door to the bathroom was open and there was Jack, at the sink, his sleeves rolled up his forearms.
The tattoos on his arms were beautiful. Bright and colorful, but full of terrible horrible images of bloody deaths and avenging angels. His tattoos looked like stained glass windows from church, heavy on bloody swords and crying women.
So incredible were the tattoos that it took me a second to realize most of them were splattered in blood. Real blood. It was across his chest and a wide arc of it was dotting his face.
And he was the one talking under his breath. I caught the words: Forgive me, Father, for I have sinned.
He was praying.
Mistake, this is a mistake.
Even as I thought it, even as I knew it, I didn’t move. I couldn’t. I wasn’t sure if it was the blood or the prayers that kept me there. Or just the magnet at his core that I could not resist.
Perhaps I made a noise, some raw sound from my throat, or maybe he saw me from the corner of his eye. I didn’t know but he turned and his eyes, the blue of them, they burned and I was pinned to the spot. My knees suddenly shaking.
Later in that same scene, reality hits. Jack all but begs Abby to stay away from him and she resolves to do so. Their newfound determination to keep apart goes up in smoke after a dangerous night at the club, though, and when Jack gives Abby a ride, they end up at a diner trading pieces of their life stories.
Eventually, something bad happens at the club, something that sends Abby as far away from Jack as she can get, and Jack in pursuit of her. But are a fresh start and a decent life possible for these two?
Before I get further with this review, I want to clear up what may be a confusing cover and subtitle “A Bad Boy Secret Baby Romance.” There is no baby in this story except in the epilogue. Until then, there’s only a pregnancy in its early stages, so if you don’t like kids in romances, worry not. Also, the pregnancy isn’t a secret.
What hooked me on this book were the characters, Abby especially. I’ve never come across another heroine like her. To give an example of what I mean, she had to take her high school science class four times in a row to pass it, and she ascribes her passing grade in senior year to the fact that she finally slept with her science teacher.
She is the life of any party, and sees her job as to be the spark that ignites a nightclub. She is insecure about her intelligence, but savvier than most people. She envies Sun-hee her plans and Maria her husband and baby, and she doesn’t dare share her own dream with them because she doesn’t really believe it is within her reach.
I loved Abby because she was so recognizable and yet she defied the familiar romance heroine archetypes. I connected with her because her combination of insecurity and self-confidence felt universal—we all have things we know we can do well and other things we fear we can’t do well, even if for each of us these skills are different. Abby’s wants and desires, her suppressed dreams and her wishes, her yearning for more out of life and more with Jack, were all palpable.
Jack makes a great foil for Abby as well as a good match for her. His apartment is filled with piles of books, and Abby later learns that he was bound for graduate school before fate intervened. If Abby begins the novel as a party girl, then Jack starts out too solemn and serious. One of the biggest things that make his character work is that he has a deep-seated conscience and he really struggles with it.
Abby and Jack have one thing besides the Moonlight Lounge in common: their sibling relationships. Abby’s twin sister, Charlotte, bails her out and sacrifices for her whereas Jack sacrifices for and bails out his brother, Jesse. Even though their roles in their sibling relationships are opposite—protector and protected—they each recognize the dynamics and pitfalls of both sides of this equation, and that shared recognition is part of what brings them together.
Things that made me like Jack: Although he kept warning Abby that he was bad for her, he was good for her in so many ways that went beyond the hot, steamy sex. He believed in her and recognized that she was no less intelligent for lacking school smarts. He thought she could accomplish her dream. He did his best to stay away from her, and treated her with tenderness and consideration when they became lovers, as well as later, when circumstances forced them together. And he fell hard for her.
All of this would have meant nothing if he hadn’t wanted so badly to be redeemed. I have a weakness for redemption stories and they are rare birds nowadays. There are plenty of books with shady heroes, but many of those heroes are amoral or unapologetic about their lives of crime. Jack is neither of those things. He is forced into his job and he hates it. Guilt is a familiar emotion to him.
Some caveats about this book. There’s a choice that Bates makes with regard to Jack and he carries it a bit far. That felt a little contrived. I also wish that Abby’s growth out of her insecurity had been shown on the page in more detail. The epilogue, while clever, left me with unanswered questions about the nature of Jack’s redemption and I wish those questions had been answered.
Finally, a book like this can be criticized for romanticizing or softening what in the real world is an ugly and violent job. Not that this book doesn’t portray it as ugly and violent—it does—but by casting Jack, with his student’s soul, in the role of mobster, it does romanticize that role.
But I still loved this book. I loved the tight writing and the imagery in the figurative language. I loved the way it was told, first in Abby’s voice, then in Jack’s, and then back and forth. I loved the characters and I loved the sweetness of their relationship, as well as the chemistry between them.
There was a delicacy to the way the story unfolded, a specificity to the characterization and a precision to the writing that are really uncommon. The journey, the reading experience, was emotional but the emotion felt sincere and honest, and not like an overdose of teen angst.
Despite the few issues I mentioned, Baby, Come Back was a beautiful, almost haunting read, and it deserves an A-.