REVIEW: The Story of Us by Molly O’Keefe
Dear Molly O’Keefe:
I think I got this as a freebie somewhere, though I’m not sure where – maybe Daily Deals? Anyway, it was on my Kindle for a bit before I started it. I’ve read four Molly O’Keefe books (all part of the same series, under the M. O’Keefe name) and one novella. There have been elements to these books that feel very fresh and different, particularly in terms of heroines that aren’t at all cookie-cutter or sweet and innocent. But there’s also been a lot of what feels like unearned angst and a certain grubbiness that, while different and realistic, does not really appeal to me.
The Story of Us is a secret baby story, in part, which was a strike against it from the start, honestly. I’m not a fan of the trope, for various reasons that mainly boil down to the fact that I think it’s a very heavy thing for a mother to hide a pregnancy from a father, and the romances I’ve read featuring this plotline just do not deal with that heaviness adequately.
The heroine, Sam, runs a women’s shelter, Serenity House. She has run the house for a long time, and it’s pretty much her whole life; she lives on-site and pours everything into her work. The hero, J.D., is a private detective Sam first encountered a decade before the story starts. Sam got pregnant from what she thought would be a one-night stand, and gave the baby up for adoption. J.D. never knew, though he’s dropped into Sam’s life periodically over the years, helping her out when she needed it (and hooking up her).
As the story begins, Sam is doing an intake on a young and very pregnant girl, one who is scared and defensive. “Jane” claims to be 21 and on the run from a boyfriend who hit her; she says she just needs to stay a couple of nights. But Sam’s instincts tell her that there is more to the story, and that Jane may be a problem. Still, she agrees to let Jane stay. She then calls J.D., knowing he’ll come and help her figure out what Jane is hiding.
Sam had previously tried to put a stop to her ambiguous relationship with J.D. by dating Bob, a local guy. But she broke up with him and she makes sure that J.D. knows that when she calls him, so it’s not exactly a surprise when J.D. shows up that very night, and he and Sam have some hot sex.
After meeting her, J.D. is pretty sure that “Jane” is Christina Conti, the daughter of a mafia don who J.D. once worked for. Thus we begin Things I Didn’t Like About J.D.: he’s a bit too morally ambiguous for me. He is a hero to Sam because he helps her, but a lot of his other P.D. work is considerably more tawdry, along the lines of catching cheating spouses in the act. At one point, he muses about his ability to “compartmentalize:”
He could sleep like a baby after providing information that broke up a marriage.
He could make breakfast after sending a guy to the hospital.
He could look himself in the mirror after delivering a guy to a crime boss, effectively signing the man’s death warrant.
In my mind, one of these things is not like the others. I could rationalize away the first two, but the last is morally reprehensible to me. The thing is, if this were a redemption story, maybe…maybe I could accept it. But instead it’s left unclear if J.D. is just so full of angst that he *thinks* he’s a really bad guy, or if he really is that bad. That makes him unappealing as a hero to me. (Also, I’m aggravated that it’s never made clear – today’s contemporary bad-guy heroes remind me of what I didn’t like about historical “fake rakes” back in the day. It feels like the author is trying to have it both ways.)
Anyway, the next day, J.D. is waiting to hear from him FBI contact about whether Christina Conti is indeed missing; he and Sam have just had the first of what feels like too many arguments about how he’s really a Bad Guy and she shouldn’t fall for him or expect him to be a hero for her. Into this fraught situation walk Jennifer Stern and her 9-year-old son Spencer. Jennifer is recently widowed, and she and Spence have taken this road trip to meet him birth mother, Sam. (They couldn’t have called first?)
Just like that, the elements of a perfect storm converge. Sam, J.D., the child he didn’t know about, and the looming threat of an angry mobster who might show up on the doorstep at any moment.
The prose was good in The Story of Us – a little overwrought for me at times, but still mostly good. The characterization was fine, though I would’ve liked to have had a better understanding of Sam and her past. She felt a little underformed, perhaps because so much time was taken up with J.D.’s issues. And that was really my problem with the book. I’ve read romance regularly for almost 30 years. I burned out a while ago on tortured heroes who just don’t think they have it in them to give or receive love. I know it’s a central conceit in many – maybe most – romances, to a greater or lesser degree. For me to not be irritated by it, it has to be either really well done or somewhat muted. It definitely wasn’t muted in The Story of Us, and it wasn’t fresh or interesting enough for me to find it anything but tiresome. When Sam tried to convince J.D. for the umpteenth time that he really was a good person who deserved to be happy, I just wanted to tell her that she could do better.
I did like Spencer and his mother Jennifer (she had more dimension, I thought, then the main characters). I liked how the reunion was handled between Sam and Spence. The book moved along at a nice clip and held my attention. My final grade for The Story of Us was a B-.