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REVIEW:  Wild Child by Molly O’Keefe

REVIEW: Wild Child by Molly O’Keefe

wild childDear Molly O’Keefe:

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

Enough.

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+

~ Janet

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REVIEW:  Heating Up the Holidays Anthology

REVIEW: Heating Up the Holidays Anthology

heating

This contemporary anthology mostly delivers what the title and cover promise: romance and steam, against a winter holiday background. (Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year’s.) The emphasis is more on the heat than the holidays.

Play With Me by by Lisa Renee Jones

Kali Miller isn’t happy about being attracted to her dynamic new boss, CEO Damion Ward; she has a bad history with powerful men, including her own father. But it turns out the attraction is very mutual and despite the inherent problems, she can’t resist the gorgeous man she senses has his own painful history. “I know we are headed for trouble, and I’ve had enough of trouble. But I have not had enough of him.”

I’m not especially into this type of set-up, and this wasn’t the story to change my mind. I did enjoy spotting some of the trope conventions, such as playing with the tall, dark handsome boss’s tie: “I grab his tie and slip it around his neck, pulling the knot for him, but I don’t step away when I’m done. I hold on to it like I want to hold on to him.” Kali has a strong voice (I wasn’t too thrilled when she used it to call someone white trash) and there’s some nice chemistry between the characters; the dirty talk and sex scenes hit a good balance for an anthology — blunt without being super crude, not at all coy but not over-the-top juicy-dripping explicit either. But much of the plot is a meandering business-related mystery with no payoff, and the end is absurdly abrupt. I’m not sure what the title means, and though this is supposed to be a Thanksgiving story, the connection to the holiday is tenuous at best. D+

Snowfall by Mary Ann Rivers

This title is very apt: snow is a major player in this Christmas story, used as emphasis or metaphor.

One snowflake at a time, the pointy boards of the fence grow soft, the branches of the trees round with drifts, the patio furniture disappears into white and indistinct humps and caves.

One snowflake at a time for the world you thought [you] knew to transform.

Unrecognizable.

That elegant thought comes during a moment of somber reflection; at a more emotional moment, the subtext, as Giles from “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” would say, rapidly becomes text:

The whole world should feel how dumb this snow is, how it covers everything up, how you can’t fucking see anything, how cold it is, how it stops everything, keeps people from living their lives, going to school, going to work, how it can hurt people.

The narrator is Jenny Wright, a microbiologist who technically still has twenty twenty vision, yet is peripherally going blind. The progression of her disability is uncertain, leaving her feeling stuck in limbo. She limits her life to small, safe areas; in occupational therapy, she’s herself at fourteen, rebellious and juvenile and completely unable to accept the idea of supports that would let her resume some of her former activities. (Or prepare for the coming changes.) A bright note in her day is her sexy “cybering” with C, a nearby stranger who would like to meet her — but Jenny can’t imagine trying to join someone in the now frightening world.

Then Jenny actually has her much mocked Helen Keller moment with her occupational therapist, Evan, and begins to start to think “that maybe, maybe that what made me me was possible to prove in a number of ways,” not reliant on being sighted. And her interactions with the formerly despised Evan become increasingly personal and affectionate:

I hold my kiss there, the location innocent, but the duration indecent, my lip turned out against his skin where I can feel it warming up, where I can feel snowflakes landing and melting.

As Jenny is drawn to the warmth and sweetness of Evan, she becomes increasingly dissatisfied with the limited relationship she gets from C. But she still has a ways to go in accepting the profound uncertainty of her life — of any life.

This is sort of a Christmas miracle story, but definitely not one about a miracle cure. (Though things are pretty much perfect for Jenny, in terms of having great occupational therapists available, and apparently fabulous insurance.) It rings very true about how it feels to have a progressive medical condition:

… the lack of trust, the sense that what you want is a moving target, the grief of disbelief that losing yourself is possible when you were doing so well.

And those who hate “for your own good” stories will be happy to know that Jenny’s disability is never seen by her or anyone else as a potential impediment to love.

But although I like so many of the pieces of this story, the romance never quite coalesced. Individually, Jenny and Evan are great characters. I love how Jenny describes her full figure: “Oh, also, my ass. Who knows where that’s ended up, exactly. It’s made its own fabulous place in the world.” And Evan is sweet and generous and just adorable:

I wonder if he practices making awkward and nerdy look sort of cool. Like he fills his house with furniture that is the wrong scale for his tall body and buys plaid shirts in bulk and tells his barber to leave crazy, too-long pieces of hair mixed in with the regularly cut hair so everything always looks messy.

Then he runs his hands through his hair and puts on his plaid shirts and uses mirrors to watch himself sit in uncomfortable furniture until comfortable furniture looks like it’s the one with the problem.

But somehow Evan and Jenny together don’t quite work. He keeps painting her as breathtakingly smart and admirable, which was unconvincing; when he tells her, “You have a limited field of vision, you have vision differences, but all those brains, God, you showed us today that you’ll never ever fail to see,” it was such a cliched Hollywood tearjerker moment that it became hard for me to take him seriously as a love interest. (Ridley’s excellent recent post and comments on “the disabled protagonist” made me rethink this scene: perhaps the intention is to show Evan’s lack of judgement of  what would usually be considered Jenny’s “bad attitude” toward her disability. It still makes me squirm.)

There’s some beautiful writing and some that feels self-consciously lyrical. The sex scenes — quite a few for a short novella — have an excitement and passionate energy to them, but the lack of romantic connection I felt kept them from completely drawing me in. B-

After Midnight by Serena Bell

After the introspective, sometimes poetic style of “Snowfall,” this story about instant attraction at a New Year’s Eve party initially felt jarring, and I thought the stories would have worked better in a different order. However, after a while this more conventional romance felt refreshing — like a cool, light dessert after a rich meal.

Nora and Miles meet briefly while both are on the rebound: Nora’s boyfriend turned out to be a cheater, while Miles’s fiancée deserted him when he was accused of embezzling. When they inadvertently part without exchanging names or numbers, even social media fails them. (In an amusing and all too plausible scene, Nora gets equal parts filthy propositions and slut-shaming abuse when she uses Facebook to try and find the man she kissed on New Year’s Eve.) Almost a year later, they’re given a second chance… but the painful lessons about trust they learned from their exes may finish them before they’ve begun.

Initially I didn’t get a strong feeling about who Miles and Nora are, other than that he’s attracted to her open joyfullness and she’s intrigued by his sad eyes. I was won over by them during their charmingly imperfect phone sex:

“What are you wearing?
“Jeans and a short-sleeeved T-shirt over a long-sleeved T-shirt.”
Silence
“I killed your libido,” she said.
“No. I was trying too hard to be funny, and my brain got knotted up.”

And no worries — they get it right in the end!

There isn’t a lot of conflict to the story, and what there is seems a little strained.  But it’s lively and has a nice warmth to it, and the New Year’s/new beginnings theme gives a satisfying feeling of conclusion to the anthology. C+

Overall, I’d say this hangs together thematically better than most anthologies do, and the stories complement each other well.  For the book as a whole, C+.

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