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REVIEW: Can’t Buy Me Love by Molly O’Keefe

Dear Ms. O’Keefe:

When Jane told me I needed to read your first single-title contemporary, I didn’t hesitate in requesting it from Edelweiss. Jane knows my taste well enough that if she says I’m going to like a book, I am there. And what do you know – she was right again.

Can't Buy Me Love Molly O'KeefeCan’t Buy Me Love is everything the so-called Romance rules forbid: a heroine who dresses like a hooker, has a past bilking old men, and finds protection with an 80-year old jerk who uses her to cook up a scheme to bring his children back to his ranch before he dies. A faked engagement, complete with the tackiest wedding announcement you can imagine, finally draws the son and daughter Lyle Baker drove off his land and out of his life years before. An unforgiving, abusive, unloving SOB, Lyle is literally on his deathbed when he lures Luc and Victoria back to Crooked Creek Ranch, knowing they will be incensed at the idea of a beautiful gold-digging fiancée snagging the Baker fortune.

Tara Jean Sweet is, of course, far more than she appears in her leather miniskirts, big Texas blonde hair, and trailer park upbringing. The person who single-handedly saved Baker Leather from bankruptcy with her bestselling designs, Tara is also hiding from an old boyfriend who used her to convince old, lonely men in nursing homes to give her their money. All her life Tara has felt like a stranger in her own life, and since she turned 16 and got more than she bargained for from her mother’s man of the moment, Tara has believed herself unworthy of anything or anyone truly good in her life. Which is part of the reason Lyle is such a perfect companion for Tara – she knows he’s an SOB, but he truly cares about Tara and doesn’t ask anything of her beyond her friendship and an illusory engagement.

And when injured and indignant hockey star Luc Baker and his broke, widowed half-sister Victoria – wife of Bernie Madoff-type who committed suicide after his Ponzi scheme was revealed – show up at the ranch in the middle of the night but nonetheless ready for battle, Tara is in her element, basking in the vicious judgments and assumptions as if they were the highest praise. She greets them in a red silk negligee and treats them as if they were hauled in with the trash, the two children who haven’t been back to the ranch in years, “the math of an old man’s heartbreak,” as she calls it. Her anger, a direct emissary of her loyalty to Lyle, seeps out of her in fake, syrupy sweetness, and Luc reacts predictably, angrily, to the “whore” who acts like she owns the house and everyone in it:

He gritted his teeth, anger popping in his head like popcorn.

He knew this woman. Never met her, but knew exactly who she was, down to her bare feet. She might lie about her name, change it a thousand times, but she couldn’t change who she was.

A glorified Puck Bunny.

The kind of woman who hung out at the arenas, throwing herself at the guys just so she could say she’d screwed a professional hockey player.

A mercenary. A whore. That’s all she was.

Preparing for the fight, he shrugged out of his spring jacket, tossing it over the club chair so hard he nearly knocked it over.

. . .

Apparently Bimbo Barbie had a secret steel edge to her, because her eyes were sharp, stabbing him right in the chest.

Good, the competitor in him snarled. Let her test that edge against me and see where it gets her.

“My nephew is tired,” he said. “Find him a room.”

She blinked, no doubt pissed off by his tone. No one liked being treated like they were a servant, especially women who skated the edges of that role. But she lifted her chin, throwing back all that blonde hair.

“The west wing is ready for you. I’m sure you remember-“

”My old room. Of course.”

Rattled, Luc left the woman standing there, racing away as fast as he could, from all that sickness and all that beauty.

Luc is particularly angry and awful, barely able to stand being in the house that represents so much cruelty aimed at him, his mother, and his sister. And not only does he find Tara distasteful, he finds her beautifully distasteful, which just adds to his sense of helpless anger. Luc is already overwhelmed by women in his life, especially his sister Victoria (daughter of his father’s mistress), who has abandoned dignity and pride to crawl back to Lyle, bringing her son like a bargaining chip to what she sees as her only chance for financial survival. Between Victoria’s brittle insecurities, his mother’s ice-cold beauty and icier relationship with Lyle’s illegitimate daughter, and Tara’s poisonous appeal, Luc cannot wait to flee the ranch and all the memories of his father’s punishing disapproval and return to the athletic discipline that has almost convinced him that he no longer cares what the old bastard thinks of him.

However, when Lyle abruptly dies before anything can be discussed, let alone settled, Luc finds himself required, by the terms of Lyle’s will, to stay at the ranch during his off-season, overseeing the business that he now co-owns with Tara and the fortune – in trust – that will be given to Victoria and Jacob after Luc fulfills his five-month obligation to the ranch. It is an arrangement that shakes up Tara’s world, too, because her payment for the drama was to be 40% of Baker Leather without any hint that Luc would be her boss and her partner in the business. Luc, who wouldn’t wear a pair of Baker boots five years ago to endorse the floundering company, and who sure as hell doesn’t care about anything that might mean something to Tara.

One of the reasons I quoted the passages above is to make clear that this is no fake set-up in regard to the intensity of dislike and distrust between Tara and Luc. Luc is one of the angriest characters I have seen in quite a while. His career is all but over due to the scar tissue on his frontal lobe (that he’s keeping quiet about in hopes he can get one more season and a Stanley Cup for Toronto), and hockey is all he’s ever had to make him feel like he’s worth something.

And Tara is a real gold-digger; in fact, if her boyfriend and his buddy hadn’t beaten the holy living hell out of her and put her in the hospital when she decided she didn’t want to bilk old men anymore, she never would have met Lyle and would not have forged the one true friendship in her life – with a cantankerous old man who may have been a worse parent than her own mother, and that’s saying something. And Victoria (whose story is told in the next book, releasing in July) is weak, pathetic, and bitter, unwilling to take the money her brother so wants to give her but still paralyzed with indecision and an absolute conviction that she is worthless and as guilty as the husband who disgraced and then escaped her and their son. In other words, these are people who are complicated, at times unlikeable, and who do not seem built for happiness. Which is what makes their story so incredibly satisfying. It’s as if O’Keefe understands the genre so well that she’s renovating it from inside, from the very center of its archetypes.

I don’t want to spoil anything in the story, but I do want to point to some of the reasons I find this book so compelling and rich. First, there are the details. You can see some of them in the summary I’ve given and the text I quoted. But there is so much more. These characters are individuals, and the fact that O’Keefe is using such time-worn stereotypes to craft them is risky, because the line between character and caricature is very thin. For me, though, the strategy works, enriching rather than impoverishing the depth of the characterization, and with it, the complexity of emotions the characters both experience and provoke in the reader:

Tara Jean Sweet was driven by a demon. A white-trash demon standing in twelve dollar stilettos.

Shorter! The demon screamed and Tara flipped her pencil and erased the hem on the sketch, redrawing it a few millimeters higher.

More pink. Pinker.

And fringe! Lots of fringe.

Oh, the demon cooed, sucking on a Virginia Slim…bedazzle it.

“Come on, really?” Tara muttered, staring down at the sketch of the last skirt for Baker Leather’s fall line. It was short, pink and fringed. What more-

I said bedazzle it!

“Fine,” she muttered, amending the sketch and making notes in the corresponding notebook.

The demon, for all her faults, knew what the leather wearing woman wanted, down to a very uncomfortable line of thongs.

As muses’ went – the demon was a bitch. But she was never wrong.

Tara spread out the sketches, the short skirts, the tight pants, the bustiers and feminine biker jackets. Boots and shoes. Belts and earrings. Purses. Bags. Fifty new products for the 500 remaining Baker Leather stores in Texas and Oklahoma.

They looked good. The demon once again had earned her spot in Tara Jean’s head.

She took a handful of Mike and Ike’s picking out the yellows because yellow washed her out and she’d been taking the yellows out for over twenty years. One by one, she popped the rest in her mouth.

. . .

Pray you don’t get traded, those were Matthews words.

And now, Tthe Cavaliers were going to trade Luc.

Without Billy.

They were taking him away from the team he’d helped create. The year he was meant to play.

He’d finish his career on a third rate team, watching in some bar while his Cavaliers won the Cup.

It was like being plunged into ice cold blackness. He was lost. And hurt.

And he’d be left here.

“I’ve got calls into Phillips,” Beckett said. Phillips being the GM of the Cavaliers and keeper of all trade secrets. “I should know for sure soon. But I don’t think they’re going to trade you.”

“Because every team needs two star right wingers?”

“When one is getting older, yeah,” Beckett said, pulling no punches. “You know, you haven’t told me what the doctor said after the Gilcot hit.”

“He said don’t get traded to Dallas!” Luc answered. And then, because he could see the end of his career from the kitchen in his father’s house he flipped the phone shut.

But the volcano of his anger and purpose was exploding with nowhere to go. The headache that pulsed behind his eyes splintered and fractured, slicing through his whole body.

Control it, he demanded, asking something superhuman of himself. But in the end he failed. Like he always did in his father’s house.

Boiling over, he turned, found the pitcher of tea and hurled it against the wall.

Tara is a candy addict, Luc a work-out addict. Tara is trying to escape her past, only to feel dogged by its seedier elements, and Luc wants nothing more than to get back to his past hockey prime, terrified of debilitating brain damage but even more afraid of a life in which he cannot control his body with superhuman strength and agility. Their attraction is painful:

He blinked up at her and it would be so much more comfortable for her if she could just tell herself that he was stupid. A dumb hockey player. A shitty son. A no one.

But his eyes blazed with intelligence and her skin woke up under his gaze like it was the touch of a lover. The warmth spread over her body, stirring parts of her that hadn’t felt warmth in years.

It stung. Hurt. And she hated it. Hated him for making her feel it.

Their actual feelings for one another hurt even more:

Luc rolled over and before his hand touched the cold sheets where Tara’s warm body should have been, he knew she was gone. Middle of the night, middle of the day, first thing in the morning, it hardly seemed to matter. Over the last two weeks, whenever he fell asleep she slipped out of his bed, like a ghost.

It was getting hard not to take this shit personally.

It didn’t take a genius to see what she was doing, keeping him at arm’s length. And it wasn’t just sneaking out of his bed. She found every reason not to spend time with him, unless that time was spent naked. Or sort of naked.

He’d ask her to dinner and she’d take off her shirt.

This afternoon he’d suggested she go skating with him and Jacob, watch a pee wee game. She’d lifted her skirt to show him that smiley face underwear he just couldn’t resist.

He stared up at the shadows growing long across the ceiling. She closed her eyes when they kissed, didn’t look at him when she came.

Loving her hurt. And maybe if he knew she didn’t feel something, if he was sure that this was just sex, it might hurt less.

And yes, it’s often painful to read. But the writing is also funny. At one point, when Luc tells Tara she seems “like the kind of girl who likes a wine cooler in the morning,” the fact that Tara was that girl, the insight that Luc has into her, even though he has no clue who she is, the way the reader’s loyalty has already been gathered to Tara’s side – it all gives the line an edgy humor. There is a lot of that kind of edgy sarcasm in the book, and it serves to simultaneously lighten and deepen the significance of the issue beneath the mockery. Through a deceptively light narrative, the novel is clearly contemplating the very stereotypes it revels in, engaging both the reader’s enjoyment and reflection. From the beginning we see Tara’s stainless steel loyalty and her capacity for caring, as well as Luc’s overweening sense of responsibility and punishing self-discipline. Neither is open to an authentic romantic connection, yet both need and deserve that kind of singularly focused love and trust. And watching them fall for each other is excruciatingly enjoyable.

I know there are imperfections in this novel. The prose is at times clunky, and some of the issues surrounding the will would have, if I thought too much about them, bothered me. Some of the moments where the protagonists have a necessary catharsis did not translate with such clarity to me, and I wondered if I had missed something. Also, the use of Tara’s old boyfriend to create conflict and danger was predictable and his character pretty superficially villainous. However, none of that dimmed my enjoyment of the book, and I have already read it twice, with plans to go back one more time before I write my review of Victoria’s story. In the meantime, I can only say that Can’t Buy Me Love is the rare kind of book that both challenges the genre’s limits and reaffirms its most fundamental appeal. A-

~ Janet

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isn't sure if she's an average Romance reader, or even an average reader, but a reader she is, enjoying everything from literary fiction to philosophy to history to poetry. Historical Romance was her first love within the genre, but she's fickle and easily seduced by the promise of a good read. She approaches every book with the same hope: that she will be filled from the inside out with something awesome that she didnʼt know, didnʼt think about, or didnʼt feel until that moment. And she's always looking for the next mind-blowing read, so feel free to share any suggestions!

21 Comments

  1. Danielle D
    Jun 27, 2012 @ 06:13:44

    Thanks for reviewing this book, I need to put this ebook on my To Buy List.

  2. Bronte
    Jun 27, 2012 @ 07:01:22

    This book sounds interesting (and I probably will read it) but it seems like I might have one major problem with it. Namely that traumatic brain injury is such a hot button topic in hockey right now (Sidney Crosby and almost two years missed) that to me it seems crazy and highly unlikely that someone with documented MRI changes would even consider continuing playing. Bob Probert anyone? Chronic Traumatic Encephalopthy? As if the GM, team and agent wouldn’t be all over it.

  3. Brie
    Jun 27, 2012 @ 08:14:18

    I agree with everything you said. I also enjoyed and appreciated that Lyle was never redeemed, he remained a villain in the eyes of Luc and Tori, and a savior in the eyes of Tara Jean.

    Did you read the next book? Because I found Tori so unlikable that she became distracting. Luc and Tara Jean had their moments, but it was hard for me to see Tori’s redeeming qualities. Perhaps we’re not supposed to see them until her book, but her brand of flaws were more difficult for me to forgive than Tara Jean’s. I prefer them conniving and bimbo-ish (although Tara Jean wasn’t a bimbo at all, just played one) than defeated and weak.

  4. Kati
    Jun 27, 2012 @ 08:27:58

    I have this one on my Kindle, but for some reason haven’t started it. I’ll be rectifying that this weekend. Thanks for a really intriguing review, Janet!

  5. Ridley
    Jun 27, 2012 @ 10:13:21

    @Bronte:

    it seems crazy and highly unlikely that someone with documented MRI changes would even consider continuing playing.

    That’s what struck you as far fetched?

    Clearly you’re not a hockey fan. If you were, the line “a Stanley Cup for Toronto” would’ve been what stopped you. I know I’m still laughing.

  6. Jill Sorenson
    Jun 27, 2012 @ 10:23:41

    Great review. Sounds like my kind of read! Someone else related this to older SEP, which I adore.

    It also reminds me of a romance I read earlier this year, Welcome to Last Chance by Hope Ramsay. The heroine is a beauty queen type, running from a bad boyfriend, down on her luck, not too bright. She rolls into town and picks up the hero at a bar. It was unusual for a sweet, inspie-sort of romance. I thought the author’s treatment of the character was respectful.

  7. Lenice
    Jun 27, 2012 @ 11:41:27

    Sold on your beautifully written review.

  8. JL
    Jun 27, 2012 @ 12:19:16

    Stanley Cup for Toronto? Ha ha ha ha ha.

    Otherwise, I’m sold thanks to the awesome review! Sounds like an awesome read.

  9. Robin/Janet
    Jun 27, 2012 @ 12:50:01

    @Bronte: One of the things I really loved about the book was the way it did not ignore the issue of traumatic brain injuries and concussions in professional sports as a real problem that the leagues need to address. There is, in fact, a good deal of discussion of these issues throughout the book, and Luc’s position at the beginning of the book is really more denial than anything else. He knows that even one fall — on or off the ice — can end more than his hockey career, but he’s so incredibly attached to hockey for his sense of self and purpose, that he wants to believe otherwise. Because of the peripheral discussion, I never felt like the issue was being trivialized, even with Luc’s hope he can effect superhuman self-protection. Also, he has terrible headaches throughout the book that keep getting worse, which makes it impossible for the reader to believe he will be fine back out on the ice.

    @Ridley and @JL: Fortunately, she created a fiction team, the Toronto Cavaliers, so I didn’t have to compare them to the Maple Leafs. ;D

    @Brie: Yes, I also love that Lyle wasn’t redeemed. And I have read the next book, and while it took me longer to get into it, in some ways I found it more powerful than Luc and Tara’s book. Also more problematic, but incredibly ambitious, IMO.

    @Jill Sorenson: I have been casually referring to this book as SEP without the reactionary u-turn at the end. ;D

    I haven’t read the Ramsay, but I’m curious. Tara is incredibly smart, which is part of the reason she can’t forgive herself for the bad choices she made when she was younger, but I’m intrigued by a heroine who isn’t so sharp. Thanks for the recommendation.

  10. Stephanie Doyle
    Jun 27, 2012 @ 14:15:28

    Robin/Janet,

    I agree with you assesment of the second book. Full disclosure I know (and adore) Molly.

    But objectively – I think I loved the second book even more because I got to know Tori through the first story and really watched her turn her life around moment by moment through the second book.

    Very powerful. Molly’s characters aren’t easy – but man they keep me hanging on the edge. Both books, in my opinion are game changers.

  11. Cecilia Grant
    Jun 27, 2012 @ 17:48:29

    Through a deceptively light narrative, the novel is clearly contemplating the very stereotypes it revels in, engaging both the reader’s enjoyment and reflection.

    Yes. This articulates so well my experience of reading this book. Part of me was just pulled along for the ride, charmed by details like Tara Jean’s Mike & Ike addiction; enjoying the hero & heroine’s cautious circling around each other. The other part of me was slack-jawed with admiration at some of the things O’Keefe pulled off here.

    I find her writing so gutsy, both in allowing her characters to drift way into the margins of unlikeability (count me as another eagerly awaiting Victoria’s book: we’ve seen a lot of brassy, smart “difficult” heroines lately, but a passive, entitled, ineffectual “difficult” heroine is a type I can’t remember ever having seen), and in letting the roof crash in on them, hard. Both Luc and Tara Jean had major failures late in the book that weren’t just setbacks to be recovered from, but irrevocable changes to their chosen paths.

    In general it felt a little messier than most romances, a little more tolerant of human contradictions, and it was a welcome reminder that romantic love isn’t just for the self-actualized, but can visit the flawed and the royally screwed-up as well.

    [Disclosure: O'Keefe and I share an editor, and are friendly enough that my objectivity may be suspect.]

  12. Janine
    Jun 27, 2012 @ 18:03:31

    What a great review! I really want to read this book now.

  13. Ducky
    Jun 27, 2012 @ 18:49:04

    The review really makes me want to read this book.

    You know what’s funny to me? I don’t like ice hockey all that much and American football – am a real football girl all the way – even less, but romance writers have convinced err…brainwashed me into thinking ice hockey and American football players are sexy.

  14. Ridley
    Jun 27, 2012 @ 19:12:34

    @Ducky: You’re half right. Hockey players are mighty smexy. You’ve got Henrik Lundqvist, Andy Ference, Patrick Sharp, and many more. Not too learn, not too muscly, and most guys have all their teeth.

    Football players are too bulky for my taste. Though I guess I wouldn’t throw Wes Welker out of bed. I’m not unreasonable.

  15. Ducky
    Jun 27, 2012 @ 21:01:48

    @Ridley: Yes, having all their teeth is a plus.

    I guess in American football quarterbacks are not that big and beefy, plus they have to have brains – which adds to a man’s sex appeal IMO. Real beefy and bulky guys are not my cuppa either.

  16. Robin/Janet
    Jun 28, 2012 @ 00:42:06

    @Stephanie Doyle: I know someone who read them in the opposite order — I wonder what that would do to the way one sees Victoria in the second book? The first book sets up such a HUGE challenge for the second. Also, I think the second book really focused on the way women judge themselves and each other, which IMO is one of the riskiest and most compelling things about it. Very complex book, and I expect there will be some passionate debate about it, especially about Victoria. Didn’t you love Celeste’s story arc, though? I’ve had a soft spot for her character since I first read CBML.

    @Cecilia Grant: In general it felt a little messier than most romances, a little more tolerant of human contradictions, and it was a welcome reminder that romantic love isn’t just for the self-actualized, but can visit the flawed and the royally screwed-up as well.

    Oh, I totally agree with this! In fact, one of my biggest complaints in the genre is the way there seems to be this undercurrent of “earning love.” I have complicated theories about why this is (related to some of strains of early American Calvinism, etc.), but in the practice of reading it still bugs me. For Tara and Luc, love brings out the best and the worst in them, and you know it will be like that for the rest of their lives. And that while it’s not “perfect love,” it’s perfect for them, and they are perfect for each other because of that.

    I have to admit that one of the reasons I was able to overlook what would otherwise have bothered me in CBML is that the main character arcs felt like they naturally rolled out from where O’Keefe started them, rather than feeling forced or messed with in order to make the characters more likeable or less difficult. It felt organic and brave, and, best of all, coherent, which for me is a real achievement with so much going on in the narrative.

  17. Cecilia Grant
    Jun 28, 2012 @ 14:47:00

    For Tara and Luc, love brings out the best and the worst in them, and you know it will be like that for the rest of their lives.

    Yes, the book was full of examples of this sort of coexistence of opposite truths. The more I’ve thought about it, the more I’ve decided that much of it pivots around the character of Lyle. I really appreciated that (spoiler?) Luc’s journey didn’t involve learning to forgive his father. Lyle was a rat bastard to his children… and he was exactly the friend Tara Jean needed… and I felt sorry for him, dying without mending fences… and I hated the way he kept up his manipulative antics right until his end. All those things were true, in tension with one another.

    The dynamic reminded me a little of Big Daddy/Brick/Maggie in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof – the titanic patriarch, openly disappointed in his son, who recognized a kindred spirit in a scrappy-survivor young woman.

    I hope Lyle’s shadow continues its reach in Victoria’s book, and I’m thrilled to hear Celeste has a significant arc. I actually emailed O’Keefe after reading CBML to ask if Celeste would show up in any later books, and she said that, though she hadn’t originally planned it, the character had worked her way into Victoria’s story too. (Can totally see how that could happen; I loved that char!)

  18. Lauren
    Jun 29, 2012 @ 10:40:21

    Is it wrong that I started laughing and deemed this book totally unbelievable at the sentence “….and a Stanley Cup for Toronto?”.

    I’m going to buy it though. Thanks for the review!

  19. Robin/Janet
    Jul 06, 2012 @ 14:06:50

    @Cecilia Grant: Sorry it took me a while to respond to your comment; I had to re-borrow an arc of Can’t Hurry Love to double check a couple of things.

    I’ll be interested to see what you think of the Celeste arc; for a number of reasons I really loved what O’Keefe did with her character. And yes, Lyle’s legacy is still obvious in the second book, both for Eli and Victoria. Also, totally agree with you re. the Williams echoes in Tara and Lyle’s relationship. As I said, I think the second book is even more ambitious than the first, and some interesting issues cropped up for me because of that.

  20. Annie
    Nov 22, 2012 @ 23:34:53

    Looking at the cover, i never wouldve thought this book had any subtsance. Thanks for the great review, really helped me decide on what i should now read.

    Can u believe it that im all out of reading material?

  21. Best of 2012 by Jane
    Dec 21, 2012 @ 11:05:28

    [...] Buy Me Love by Molly O’Keefe (Review here) –  Tara was such a great and different and challenging heroine. /* Share [...]

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