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 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.
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-