REVIEW: Crazy Thing Called Love by Molly O’Keefe
Dear Molly O’Keefe:
I first read Crazy Thing Called Love a couple of months ago, and my immediate response upon finishing was that I found it riveting but a little bit of a mess – much like Billy and Maddy’s relationship. When I re-read the novel in preparation for my review, I had the same response, but I realized that the love story was so enmeshed with the structure of the novel, that straightening things out might kill what makes the story so emotionally and intellectually engaging. Like your other two single title books, Crazy Thing Called Love is ambitious and imperfect. However, I also think it might be the most successful of the three in the way it both relies and reflects on popular genre conventions.
Maddy Baumgarten and Billy Wilkins fell in love as kids, and barely made it to adulthood before getting married. Billy had a prodigious talent for hockey, which helped him survive his toxic, chaotic family in working class Pittsburgh, where they both grew up. Maddy, who was so wrapped up in Billy she couldn’t see anything else but a future with him, had no idea how to handle him once he made the majors, because Billy “was a twenty-two year old enforcer with a temper, a slap shot that could dent metal, a whole bunch of cash, and no clue how to handle the world he’d been thrust into.” A world just waiting for Billy make bad decisions on all the wrong women and little capacity to see past his own ego to Maddy and her feelings and needs. So when she’s finally had enough – after many fights and reconciliations – Maddy decides to leave Billy in every possible way: she moves to Florida, pursues a degree in broadcast journalism. She changes her name to Madelyn Cornish and devotes herself to her career with the same fervor she once felt for Billy, but instead of indulging in life and love and trust and food, she becomes almost ascetic in her tastes and habits – dieting and exercising ruthlessly, living beautifully but without passion, and working her way to a morning talk show in Dallas that she hoped would ultimately bring her to serious, network news television.
While Madelyn continues to look ahead, Billy is pretty much a spiraling, angry mess. A hockey player whose intensity once inspired his teammates, an overwhelming, futile sense of anger had turned him into a bully on the ice and a jerk off of it. He was playing out the last year of his contract in Dallas, disgusted with the state of the game and his role in it (or, more properly, his lack of one, since he spent so much time on the bench or in the penalty box), and in a particularly bad state since running into Maddy at the opening of the Crooked Creek Spa, which his best friend’s sister had started with her step-mother. The collision between Billy’s old life – and his enduring, poorly sublimated love for Maddy – and his current circumstances stung, because it forced him to reflect on just how empty and angry his life – and he – had become. He wanted another shot at Maddy, even though he knew she wanted nothing more than to never see or hear from him again.
Billy’s antics make him a popular subject of the sports pages, though, and for a show like AM Dallas, that kind of attention can mean ratings, especially in combination with a faddish concept like “makeover.” Of course, Maddy can’t tell her associate and executive producers that she is Billy’s ex-wife, any more than Billy can turn down the opportunity to get near Maddy again, even if it is for some corny, likely humiliating stunt like a makeover. And he hopes that once they are back in physical proximity, the old chemistry will kick in and make a happy reunion inevitable.
Billy is right about one thing: Maddy missed him. But Madelyn has spent many years working that girl out of her system, and she’s not about to give it all up for Billy. He’s like dessert: a fond memory that, if indulged, will make her fat and slow down her brain to a crawl. Yes, she misses the passion and the emotional closeness and the fact that for so many years Billy was her absolute best friend in the world. But he was also self-absorbed and insensitive, dismissive of her needs, and, even if he wasn’t physically cheating, he was completely immersed in giant ego-stroke that was life as a successful pro athlete.
In short, Billy wants to just forget the past and move on, while Maddy can’t get over what happened and refuses to let it happen again. Which means they are in stalemate, each stuck in the emotional place that led to the split all those years ago. And it’s a particularly difficult place to be, because neither Maddy nor Billy want to relinquish the thing that makes them happy outside their relationship – hockey for Billy and television work for Maddy.
For those of you who do not like spoilers, I’m going to suggest you stop reading my review after this paragraph, because I’m going to get into detail about Maddy and Billy’s journey back, and that’s going to involve some major spoilers. If you don’t want to read those, let me sum up my take on Crazy Thing Called Love with this: O’Keefe needs to find a way to reconcile this couple without either of them sacrificing the entirety of their character. And yet she has to do it in a way that allows each to see and remedy ways of seeing themselves and each other that previously made a healthy, lasting relationship impossible. Billy has to learn to take responsibility for his life and his choices, and he has to be willing to put himself on the line for the people he cares about. As much as he always loved Maddy, once he became famous, he lost the part of himself that wanted to work to keep her. And Maddy has to learn how to love passionately without losing herself in it, to know, trust, and accept herself, and forgive past wounds. I think the novel accomplishes this, even though it does so in a kind of chaotic, uneven way, with a bit of a rush at the end and a somewhat corny ending. And while there were a number of moments I really had to think about the genre conventions O’Keefe was employing, worried that they would take a bad turn, for the most part I felt she managed to both use and rework those conventions in a way that did not disappoint the high expectations I had for the novel.
Now, for the long version of that analysis: the novel is pretty dramatically, albeit informally, divided into two sections. The first section is focused on Maddy and Billy, and on the ways his breach of Maddy’s professional environment both reignites their mutual attraction and amplifies the problems in their relationship. Billy’s larger-than-life persona could, in the best of times, make Maddy feel protected and cherished, but it could also be overwhelming and suffocating. I have seen some readers respond negatively to Maddy, to accuse her of being cold and ungenerous, but I did not find that interpretation supported by the backstory presented through both her and Billy’s alternating POV. However, her asceticism is difficult to read at times, because Billy, for all of his excessive anger and, when he turns it on, charm, is more overtly emotional, which makes Maddy seem anemic and withholding by comparison. She doesn’t trust herself to be strong, which makes her an unreliable representative of her own character, as unreliable as Billy, who wants to see only her past softness and loyal submission. While both of them have grown in the years they’ve been apart, neither has found the perfect balance point. Billy has allowed his surplus of passionate intensity to become destructive and chaotic, while Maddy has become over-controlled and disconnected. At one point Billy perceives that “she cultivated a certain emptiness. A cool distance,” almost to the point of looking “stupid.” Billy manufactures so much emotion he doesn’t know what to do with it all, while Maddy has worked to empty herself out, and though neither is fully content, they don’t see the extent of their discontent until coming back into each other’s lives.
But if Maddy’s current life sterility brings into doubt her wisdom in leaving Billy, the arrival of his niece and nephew, whom he has left to the care of his two sisters – one a drug addict and the other an abuser – without one single thought to their existence and care, should acquit her choice, however painful it was and still is for both her and Billy.
Becky and Charlie, pre-teen and toddler, fly unsupervised from Pittsburgh to Dallas, posing as Billy’s children to surprise him on the show. Their fathers unknown or in jail, their mother dead, and their aunt an emotionally crippled abuser, these two kids bring with them all the awfulness of Billy’s past, the family dysfunction and violence that shaped him in ways he has never really reconciled. Becky is a product of that chaotic life, too, and she’s untrusting, cynical, and completely incapable of handling the adult responsibilities she’s had to shoulder for too long. She thinks that the reunion will be a fairy tale, and it’s obviously not. Billy hasn’t had to be responsible for anyone else in a long time, and he has no idea how to make two children feel safe, especially when he has done nothing to reach out to his niece and nephew, not even to send them Christmas or birthday gifts. His sisters only saw him as an ATM, and at some point he just cut them off, not even knowing his sister, Janice, had died of a drug overdose.
Maddy also had no idea of Becky and Charlie’s existence, nor did she have any role in bringing them to the show, something she hopes Billy will believe. And she is only slightly more capable of dealing with two kids, especially a young girl who she can tell wants so desperately to be wanted and loved, but who is terrified of letting her guard down for that to happen. Once the kids show up, the book becomes much grittier and more emotionally engaging, because it’s as if Maddy and Billy’s past walks right into the present world of the novel and demands recognition and reckoning.
I am not the biggest fan of kids in Romance, because I often feel they are used to manipulate emotions, to artificially bond a couple, or to validate the heroine as a “natural mother.” Here, though, despite the ways in which Becky’s world-weariness and Charlie’s oblivious cheerfulness are themselves somewhat clichéd, the way they force change upon Maddy and Billy is not. In fact, I think the real brilliance of Crazy Thing Called Love is the way it rides the knife’s edge between relying on genre conventions and repurposing them, basically at the same time. It’s really an incredible feat the book pulls off – every time I felt like the novel was slipping into a clichéd pattern, something would happen to turn everything around. For example, I was concerned that Maddy would discover that she really didn’t want to be a television news anchor and would become the happy wife and mother to Billy, Becky, and Charlie. But that is not what happened at all. When I worried that Madelyn Cornish was going to become needy Maddy Wilkins again, that is not what happened. Nor did Billy become a completely tamed husband and father.
No, the trajectory of Maddy and Billy’s relationship is more complex and uneven than their circumstances would suggest. It is also more satisfying, although there is a chaotic unevenness to the novel that at times makes it a mirror of the messiness of their relationship. The division between the two parts is stark, and it’s stark in a way that makes you pay attention to the construction of the novel, rather than just being moved along by it. I also felt like the relationship resolves itself a bit too quickly, considering the complexity of the issues, and the final scene is no small bit corny. Still, I will say that I think this book is the most successful of the Crooked Creek series at reflecting on and reworking genre conventions while still keeping them recognizable and relevant. While not my favorite book in the series (Can’t Buy Me Love holds that place), I think Crazy Thing Called Love might be the most broadly appealing, without sacrificing the ambition, intelligence, and thoughtfulness that has marked the series as a whole. B