One of my favorite things about your books is the way they refuse to shy away from messy, complicated characters and relationships. Wild Child is no different in that regard, although I found the book more problematic and less satisfying that I had hoped.
Mayor Jackson Davis is desperate to save the town of Bishop, Arkansas, which is a victim of the economic downturn in a way so many small, manufacturing-based towns have been. A guy who’s known for “swinging for the fences,” Jackson has a little of the George Bailey syndrome – he had to drop out of law school and come back to Bishop to raise his younger sister after their parents were killed in a car accident. Twelve years separate Jackson and Gwen, and their relationship is as strained as Bishop’s resources at the moment. If only he can find a way to get the town back on track, he can clear out of it and live whatever life he’s sure is waiting for him somewhere else. When America Today announces a contest in which towns will compete to become the new home for the Maybream Crackers factory, Jackson is certain that Bishop and its abandoned okra processing plant can, and will, win that contest, saving Bishop and setting Jackson free.
If only Monica Appleby weren’t back in town.
Monica is famous in the way a young woman involved in something scandalous and notorious can be. Her mother killed her father in Bishop, on a confused, horrific night Monica is back in town to chronicle in her new book, something hopefully more serious than her previous books – one on groupies, another on her own upbringing as a “wild child,” which she describes as “a life lived on the road and backstage, traveling around the world and through the rocky and terrible terrain between girlhood and womanhood.” Still in the public eye via the reality show she did with her now-estranged mother, Simone (whose current reality show is an embarrassment and an ongoing emotional injury to Monica), Monica feels as burdened as Jackson by the weight of other people’s expectations. It’s just that where Jackson has always worked like crazy to meet those expectations, Monica’s strategy has edged more toward defying and disappointing them.
And her mere presence in Bishop, which Jackson is hoping to sell to the voting American public as a “wholesome but forward-thinking” town “where people would want to raise a family” jeopardizes that, not only because of Monica’s reputation, but also because of the dark history she has with the town, and her determination to investigate what is still a confused jumble of nightmarish little-girl memories for her. The mutual instant attraction complicates matters, because its intensity matches their mutual reluctance to become involved with, and therefore, vulnerable to, each other. Oh, and once Simone gets wind of Monica’s plans, she brings her reality-show circus to Bishop, just as determined to discourage Monica from dredging up the past, hoping instead to facilitate a long-overdue mother-daughter reconciliation.
As I write this, I am aware of the screwball comedy set-up it suggests, and it is a testament to O’Keefe’s skill as a writer and a storyteller that she imbues Jackson and Monica’s stories (as a fledgling couple and as individuals) with a tremendous amount of emotional depth and sensitivity. Jackson, for all of his superficial optimism and self-sacrifice, has a very difficult time forming close, healthy, emotional bonds with other people, including and especially his sister, Gwen, who tends to view Jackson as an aloof, unconcerned jerk. When their parents died, Jackson “poured himself into . . . [n]ormalizing his sister” like he did everything else – with full dedication and an almost total lack of self-awareness. Now a young woman who is looking forward to finally going away to college, Gwen feels completely alienated from her brother, and Jackson’s inability to understand how and why this is just exacerbates the problem. And Monica, who has, in so many ways, been overexposed to the public eye, consciously yearns for the kind of self-understanding she hopes will yield some peace in her life, because for all of the ways she has exhibited and displayed various parts and pieces of herself, there may only be one person who truly knows her – her friend Jenna – and Jenna’s recent death from cancer has left Monica feeling raw and alone and without any sense of home.
It is virtually impossible to describe the plot of Wild Child without having it sound like It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World: there is the film crew that arrives for the Maybream contest; there is a subplot between one of Jackson’s childhood friends, Shelby, and Dean, the CEO of Maybream (more on that in a minute); Simone’s return to Bishop to stop Monica from researching her book; Gwen’s troubled relationship with Jackson and her own coming-of-age issues; the huge preparations the town makes to win favor for the Maybream contest, including the Miss Okra pageant; finding a way to keep Monica from becoming a spectacle to the press and minimizing the disruption posed by Simone and her reality-show film crew; and the incredibly rocky romantic development of Jackson and Monica’s relationship. There’s even a Chinese Crested dog named Reba (Jenna’s dog, over whom Monica now has reluctant custody).
Most of these elements play a critical role in the book, and some of them suffer because of their relegation to secondary status. Shelby and Dean’s incredibly difficult and uncomfortable relationship, for example. I don’t know if Shelby is getting her own book (I suspect she is), but in Wild Child, the woman who grew up with incredibly strict parents and who has always kind of been the “good girl,” ends up having an initially anonymous roadside encounter with Dean, which develops into a sexual relationship that makes Shelby feel increasingly debased and disgusted by Dean (who is completely oblivious to Shelby’s feelings, and, in his own narcissism, cannot imagine why she would not want him). My sense of that relationship is that it’s supposed to provide a kind of foil to Monica and Jackson’s, an example of how wrong a relationship can go when there is no fundamental respect, trust, and affection between the partners. However, because the novel has so many different threads that require resolution, they all suffer to some degree by the sheer lack of pages in which that can happen. For me, Shelby’s story suffers the most, because while I was satisfied with the choices she ultimately made for herself, I wanted more for her at the end of the book, especially given the complexity and discomforting nature of her story.
Still, the novel is powerfully engaging in its contemplation of emotional vulnerability and the way it can damage, even fracture, relationships when there is not sufficient trust, understanding, compassion, and a deep willingness to truly let oneself be known to another. All of these characters wear a variety of costumes and shields in order to keep themselves protected, when instead they end up feeling isolated and unfulfilled.
Which brings me to Jackson and Monica, whose relationship is emblematic of the way O’Keefe can bring characters with somewhat clichéd backstories into vivid and compelling life as they stumble, sometimes joyously, often painfully, always passionately, toward love and mutual happiness. As a woman who has always felt overexposed and therefore misunderstood, Monica is both excited and wary of her instant attraction to Jackson, because the electricity feels so real to her that it wakes her up to a lot of suppressed needs and desires. And as a man who has long suppressed his own needs and desires to take care of other people and things, and who knows how easily Monica could disrupt his plans for Bishop, Jackson has the same ambivalent wake-up call with Monica:
“I am a man who hasn’t had sex in two years,” he laughed, somehow so easy with this confession when every other man she’d ever known would never dream of saying such things, “and has spent endless, and I do mean endless, nights reimagining and replaying every sexual encounter I’ve ever had. The women I’ve disappointed, the way I would have done things differently, the women I’ve pleased and who have pleased me.” He pointed to his head. “It’s all right here.”
She stared at him. “What am I supposed to do with that?”
“I don’t know.” He sighed. “But I do know that I have not felt the way I feel about you in years.”
“It’s just sexual attraction, Jackson. It’s chemistry.”
“I know. And it’s awesome.” He nearly fist-pumped. He nearly danced with his excitement.
She laughed, because he sounded like a kid and part of her . . . part of her had forgotten – if she’d ever really known – what pure chemistry felt like. She’d confused it plenty in her youth. Manufactured it. Mislabeled it. Pretended it was there when it wasn’t. Faked it.
But what she felt for Jackson – it was real.
This feeling of “real” is key for these two, because both are used to wearing masks other people cannot easily see through. And while each one wants the other – desperately, at times – to see the “real” person behind the mask, there is an equal level of terror at what that will mean. Neither wants to be the first or only to be completely vulnerable, and the process of breaking through sometimes results in an accusation or an insult or a false assumption that causes hurt. Jackson, the man who feels almost too full up with responsibilities, obligations, and dreams for a future he fears may never manifest, and Monica, the woman who feels empty inside where self-acceptance, happiness, and personal contentment should be. The experience of their relationship was compelling for me, riveting, even. I could feel Monica’s anger and grief on a visceral level, and Jackson’s blind desperation was like a living, breathing thing in the book. And while painful, the ways in which these two people were hurt, and in turn, hurt each other, was essential to the kind of growth they might otherwise never realize.
And here’s where the novel really shines for me, because the “lesson” is not that love saves you or that Monica and Jackson have to earn happiness or be good enough for it; they merely need to understand that love is not a cure-all and happiness is something one must consciously choose:
Her love for Jackson had been so clean just yesterday – it was the best thing she’d ever had – and then she’d gone and messed it up, dragged it down through the dirt. So that at the inevitable end, when he left her hurt and miserable, she could comfort herself with the idea that it hadn’t been all that special anyway.
But it was special.
In the drawer of the bedside table was a note from the only person who ever really knew her, all the i’s dotted with circles, and Jenna knew she was special.
She was special.
And she deserved some goddamn happiness
Right now, right here, she fixed herself to solid ground. She tugged and tore and pushed and pulled the anger away from the love she felt. The person she was.
And had the novel kept its focus honed on Monica and Jackson, I think it would have been more successful for me as a novel. As a relationship, Monica and Jackson came across as very real to me, but the sheer scope of the characters and their complicated, intersecting stories made me feel that everything got somewhat short-shrift in the end (too easily resolved, not resolved enough, etc.). And when I was finished, I felt like all of the risks the novel took with these characters who sometimes make bad choices and hurt themselves and each other were played safer than I think they should have been.
Ironically, this might be O’Keefe’s most mainstream novel yet, and I think it will appeal to readers who like Jennifer Crusie and Susan Elizabeth Phillips, but without the more traditional turn that sometimes happens in the work of those other authors. But because I have come to appreciate the risks O’Keefe regularly takes, Wild Child ended up feeling a little too tame for me. C+