Dear Ms. O’Keefe:
Just last month, I wrote an almost giddily positive review of your debut single title contemporary Romance, Can’t Buy Me Love. I still remember reading that book for the first time and feeling both excited and afraid to read Victoria’s story, Can’t Hurry Love, given her pitiably flawed presence in Luc and Tara’s book. Fluctuating between cringing (and cringe-inducing) emotional weakness and raw unlikeability, the disgraced, widowed Victoria was hardly the stuff of romantic heroism, so it was clear that her own journey to happiness would be dramatic and intense. What was less clear to me was how convincing that journey would be, given the steep learning curve Victoria would face in becoming the heroine of her own life, let alone her own book.
Very little seems to have changed for Victoria in the month between Can’t Buy Me Love and Can’t Hurry Love. She and her son Jacob are living at Crooked Creek Ranch with Luc’s mother, Celeste, the housekeeper, Ruby, and Eli Turnbull, whose anger at being cheated out of so much of his family’s land has become a psychic sledgehammer in search of a nail. And Victoria is the nail.
Eli wants to be nice to Victoria long enough to buy the ranch from her, so that he can fulfill his own dream of starting a horse-breeding business. But Victoria does not want to sell the ranch; she wants to learn how to be a rancher and fulfill the conditions of her father’s will. The “scarecrow,” as Eli unkindly thinks of her, is one more Baker standing in the way of what he’s owed, of what he’s worked for all his life. What Eli does not realize is that Victoria feeds off his hostility, tied so closely, as it is, to the reluctant attraction and childhood history the two share.
So when Eli tells her that he is selling the Angus cattle her father so loved, and one of the most valuable assets of the ranch, Victoria finally begins to connect to her own anger in a new way:
After years of lying down, of capitulating, of surrendering before she even realized she had something she wanted to fight for, she was filled with an unholy hostility.
There was a war’s worth of lost fights inside of her. And if Eli was going to stand in the way of what she wanted … well, she smiled, he’d better brace himself.
She was a woman who was just beginning to realize how scorned she truly was.
When Victoria was a teenager, she had a crush on Eli, and he could not resist the way she followed him around. As the older of the two and native to the ranch, he held the advantage in their budding friendship. So when Victoria returned and did not even recognize him, the rejection stung. As someone who had always been on the margins at Crooked Creek, Eli was not about to let Victoria boss him around. And Victoria, who had always felt that she was on the margins of her father’s “real” family and her high society married life, was sick of being bossed around by people who judged her unworthy. That both Victoria and Eli cultivate the necessary loneliness of perennial victimhood makes it even more difficult for them to recognize their similarities and negotiate their attraction in an easy, healthy way.
Instead, the contest of wills between Eli and Victoria frames the novel. Eli makes her muck out stalls when she wants to watch the sale of the Angus herd; Victoria cleans the stall and then douses it with potpourri to piss Eli off; Eli sells the cattle knowing that Victoria will not be able to run the ranch without its income; Victoria figures out another way to keep the ranch going and piss off Eli, and so on.
Initially, the competition seems to invigorate Victoria and unbalance Eli. Victoria begins to eat and enjoy the taste of food. She, Celeste, and Ruby concoct a plan to turn Crooked Creek into a spa that Victoria will run. And in finally embracing her own will to live, Victoria comes back to life, a vivid physical and emotional presence that makes Eli painfully aware of his own myopic loneliness. He is emotionally stooped from the “weight of a hundred year-old grudge on his back,” and his Uncle John, who had been urging him to get the ranch land back into the Turnbull family, is disappointed in Eli’s desire to breed horses.
However, because their relationship is so much about power, it never rests for long with one person. Once Eli becomes more conscious of his attraction to Victoria, as well as her reluctant attraction to him, he feels more in his element. Unlike Victoria, who had turned her entire life over to a man who ruined her and then checked out permanently, Eli has taken great pains to keep from getting too close to any one woman. He had never even brought a woman back to his home, the same house he had grown up in – the place filled with memories of a mother who left when he was eight and a father who then drank himself into dissolution and dementia. Emotionally he may be closed off, but sexually he is confident and assertive, and unashamed to use whatever tools he has to get what he needs from Victoria and the ranch:
“Victoria.” He caught her hand, panic making him reckless. His instincts told him to stop, but this was too much to lose; he needed the barn. The ultrasounds and chute were equipment he couldn’t start his business without.
. . .
Her eyes were wide, her pink lips open, a blush burned onto her cheeks. She was so beautiful in her surprise and his body reacted, his heart pounding.
“I’m sorry,” he murmured. Whether he was sorry for what he’d done, or what he was about to do, he couldn’t say. Without thinking, he leaned forward to taste those pink lips, the sweetness of her amazement.
The smack never came; it was as if she were a fly in a web and he was the terrible spider who had caught her. He pressed his lips to hers. She jumped as if shocked, her mouth opening, and he fought himself not to take advantage. Not to push this strange moment into shattering. He kept the kiss tender, her chapped lips all but breaking his heart.
Carefully, as if she were a horse that might spook, he touched her cheek with his fingertips, and when she didn’t shy away he slid those fingers around her neck, cupping the heat of her skin, the pounding of her heartbeat in his palm.
There was a vibration in her throat and he felt it in his mouth, in his hand, and he knew she was moaning. Crying slightly, because she hated herself right now, hated that she couldn’t resist him. And the devil in him loved that. Lived for that.
He should have done this earlier, cut through all the bullshit negotiation and bullshit communication, and gotten right to this.
Because sex, he understood. A woman’s soft groan reverberating against his tongue was all the communication he needed.
He stepped closer, caution be damned. She wanted him, he’d known that about her for a while, and if he couldn’t win the honest way, he’d win like this.
One of the things I most appreciate about Victoria and Eli is the way they challenge the very stereotypes they often adopt as a protective shell. Victoria can be the snooty society denizen, but it’s only a costume. Eli can be the laconic, manly cowboy, but he is definitely not the idealized Western hero. That O’Keefe allows her characters to use these clichés gives them even more dimension and appeal, and even when the characters suffer from a lack of self-awareness, the narrative does not.
Normally, at this point in the review, I would be discussing the emotional dynamics between these two very complex characters – the self-hatred both struggle with, the sense of shame that drives each of them toward and away from each other, the intense emotional loneliness that comes from being abandoned and misunderstood, the need for autonomy that is shared by both male and female characters. And certainly all of this comes into play in the novel and its romantic trajectory.
However, there is so much more in Can’t Hurry Love that makes it one of the most ambitious novels I have read in a long time, and one of the most challenging to review cogently and comprehensively. [and I need to issue a mild spoiler alert here for the rest of the review]
For example, there is a substantial subplot involving Luc’s mother, Celeste, who not only serves as one of Victoria’s partners in the spa, but who also struggles with her attraction to a younger man (and her raging paranoia about getting and looking older). Then there is the spa construction itself, which involves Victoria, Celeste, and Ruby managing construction, developing menus, planning services, hiring an architect, etc. And the architect they hire just happens to be . . . Eli’s estranged mother, Amy, the very same woman who left him and his father many years ago and has not seen nor communicated with him since. Bringing Amy into the picture catalyzes a series of conflicts with Eli that intersect and challenge his developing (and already tumultuous) relationship with Victoria. Not to mention the fact that Eli is already dealing with his father’s dementia — even though his father is in a full-time care facility — and trying to manage his Uncle John’s growing disapproval with his personal and professional choices.
It is a testament to O’Keefe’s agility as a storyteller and the depth of her skill that she manages all of this without completely overwhelming the central relationship between Victoria and Eli. In fact, it is the consistency of thematic concerns among all of these subplots – alienation, rejection, shame, self-blame, marginalization, seeking happiness in the wrong places, personal fulfillment v. responsibility, divided loyalties, just to name a few – that makes the book cohere to the extent that it does.
However, there are problems. One issue I had that was not related to the character crowding was the way Celeste possesses a casual bigotry and racism in her view of Ruby. She refers to her “Mexican soap opera theatrics,” and mocks her with sarcastic accusations of “stealing silverware” and stereotyped descriptions of her clothes. While I think the descriptions are intended to reflect Celeste’s insecurities and snobbery, they come across as cheap shots and one-dimensional stereotypes that stand in sharp contrast to other examples and objects of sarcasm in the novel.
Then there is the issue of Eli’s mother and the deep well of emotions her presence opens up. I realize that her return gives Eli the opportunity to heal the wounds of his past so that he can be emotionally strong and whole for Victoria, but in a novel where his own romantic relationship is so complex and difficult, any reconciliation of that secondary storyline is difficult to accomplish in such a short, chaotic period of time. Since Eli’s emotional wounds seem actually deeper than Victoria’s, his epiphany and recovery just feels rushed. And because Amy has her own backstory, and her own issues regarding why she left and how that has made her feel, she is always walking a line between being a sympathetic figure (especially as Victoria’s architect) and a villain (mother who truly did abandon her child), in a way that ultimately flattens out her character a bit and makes the resolution of her subplot somewhat facile.
Another problem is that all of this secondary action imposes a good deal of external drama on a relationship that already has a good deal of internal (and interesting) drama. The way, for example, that the anger in both Eli and Victoria plays out in their sexual relationship is really well-portrayed and powerful. Victoria enjoys it when Eli gets a little rough with her, which plays into Eli’s self-hatred, and yet simultaneously elicits his protective instincts. And as Eli becomes more comfortable with his own vulnerability, Victoria has to deal with her own insecurities, not only around her deep trust issues, but also in terms of how Jacob can and should fit into her growing attachment to Eli. And then there are the emotional tests that Victoria, in particular, must endure regarding her own reclamation of her dignity.
I will say that I think O’Keefe does an admirable job of making all of these elements cohere, and I still marvel at the sheer ambition of the book. And it is not just ambitious in terms of how much is going on, but also in the way so many of these elements challenge and complicate our conditioned expectations for genre Romance. O’Keefe definitely knows her way around an angry heroine and hero, and that knowledge is definitely on display in Can’t Hurry Love. And despite my frustration with how the runaway mother subplot gets worked out, I was thrilled that Amy’s character was not automatically slotted in as the “bad mother.” While her storyline did not get the nuanced treatment I think it deserved, it got much more nuance than we so often see in the genre. And while Celeste’s own story was another complicating story element that sometimes edged into familiar, stereotyped terrain, I still enjoyed it immensely, in part because O’Keefe breaks a few more stereotypes with Celeste’s love interest (and let’s face it: it’s fun to watch Celeste fall from her own high horse, especially when you know the fall will ultimately be a happy one).
And then there is the writing, which, while sometimes rough, is also sometimes deeply affecting in the way it connected me to the characters intellectually and emotionally. My investment in their happiness was not connected to how much I “liked” them, or whether they “earned” their happiness; it was a function of their compelling complexity, the way they always have dimension and a fundamental structural integrity, even as the evolve and grow. In fact, I don’t even think of my response to the book in terms of “like” and “dislike,” but rather in terms of the extent to which it engaged me from the very beginning and kept me invested until the very end. Even a few cheesy or over the top moments did not throw me out of the story.
All of which makes Can’t Hurry Love a difficult book to discuss and recommend without a hundred caveats and caveats to those caveats. Some of the very reasons it is so engaging are the same things that don’t fully succeed. And yet I would not want this book to be any less ambitious, because I think the genre as a whole needs more of this kind of ambition, and I certainly think O’Keefe has many more interesting and challenging stories to tell. For this one, though, B-