JOINT REVIEW: Burn Down the Night by M. O’Keefe
Last year I bought and read Everything I Left Unsaid and The Truth About Him on the strength of Janine’s two very positive reviews. I liked both, if not quite as much as Janine did. The two books featured the same hero and heroine, Dylan and Annie, and introduced the characters of Max (Dylan’s brother) and Joan (another resident of the trailer park where Annie lived).
When Janine suggested we do a joint review of Max and Joan’s book, Burn Down the Night, I jumped at the chance. Like Janine, I was very intrigued by Joan’s character in the first two books and was happy to hear that this book would feature her. –Jennie
Jennie: Burn Down the Night begins with a scene we already saw late in The Truth About Him; Joan brings Max, badly beaten and shot in the leg, to the trailer park and encounters Dylan, Annie, and Max and Dylan’s dad, Ben. Actually, it begins slightly before that, at the strip club where Joan has been working and where Max’s motorcycle club hangs out. A drug deal involving Max and Lagan, a creepy cult leader who Joan has business with, goes south (due to Joan’s interference), and Max ends up being at the receiving end of a revolt from his gang mates.
Joan saves Max because he’s her link to Lagan; the somewhat unhinged cult leader/drug dealer has taken Joan’s sister Jennifer as one of his “brides.” Joan knows that she needs Max’s help to find Lagan again, so she has to keep him away from his club mates, who’ll finish the job they started if given the chance. She also needs to get treatment for the bullet in his leg. To that end, she heads for Florida, where she’s hoping her Aunt Fern, an ex-Army nurse, can provide both shelter and medical care.
Joan’s relationship with Fern is not great, though, and she’s apprehensive of her welcome. Joan and Jennifer were raised by Fern for part of their lives – their mother died when they were young and then their father died when they were teens. Joan was an ultra-rebellious teenager who clashed with Fern; Jennifer was more of a goody-goody but she followed her sister’s lead and left Fern’s care when Joan did. Joan has always felt responsible for her younger sister and particularly feels responsible for getting her mixed up with Lagan. She’ll do anything to save her sister, even throwing herself on the mercy of her disapproving aunt and getting mixed up with dangerous Max.
Fern takes Joan and Max in, patches Max up, and provides them with the use of a conveniently empty apartment in her condominium complex, with the caveat that they need to be out in a week.
Because Max is big, dangerous, and delirious with fever when he arrives at the condo, Joan takes the precaution of handcuffing him to the bed. When it comes out that the rest of the gang is in jail and Max’s main antagonist is dead, Joan makes the decision to keep Max handcuffed until she can persuade him to contact Lagan and help her find her sister. Max, understandably, is not pleased with Joan’s choices.
The heart of the novel, which is told in first-person alternating chapters, is the push and pull between Max and Joan; in that way, it mirrors the two books featuring Dylan and Annie. There’s other stuff going on – the cult leader, the missing sister, Max’s criminal past, Joan’s fraught relationship with Fern, even the often amusing conceit that Fern puts out to the other condo residents that Max and Joan are newlyweds on their honeymoon. But most of the story is focused on these two tortured characters, how they collide, and whether they can be each other’s salvation rather than each other’s destruction. This was, I thought, both a strength and weakness in the novel.
Janine: Agreed. Before we get into the book’s strengths and weaknesses, though, I want to state upfront where I am coming from in terms of my reading experience. I requested the ARC because I enjoyed the earlier books in the series a lot, but when the deadline for this review approached and I picked the book up, I wasn’t in the mood for something quite as gritty as Burn Down the Night turned out to be. Partly because of that, I felt more detached from this book than from the earlier two books in this series (Book one, Everything I Left Unsaid, was especially terrific).
Jennie: Joan has a fairly straightforward hardscrabble background – losing both her parents as a child, and even in the years between her mother’s death and her father’s, having to be more responsible than a child should have to be for another child (her father was loving but not great on the day-to-day details of caring for two small children). A teenage rebel who wanted to be a nurse but managed to self-destruct her ambitions as well as any good relationship she ever had (she’s bisexual, so this includes relationships with both men and women), Joan has a penchant for attracting losers and users. There’s no one big reason that Joan is such a mess; she’s just not caught many breaks in life and her bad choices have consistently made things even worse.
Janine: I thought there were solid reasons given. She loved her father and presents him in a good light, but Max sees through that to an almost criminally neglectful parent. And something really awful happens to her family in Joan’s teen years.
A second reason for my aforementioned detachment from this book was that I went into Burn Down the Night with a certain image of Joan, an idea of who she was. I really fell in love with her character in the first two books. She came across as a tough, even hardened woman, but one who had a heart somewhere in there. A mysterious figure, too – Annie first suspected her of being a prostitute, then learned she was a stripper, later thought she was a DEA agent, and the final hint we got was that Joan was a con artist. Add in Joan’s bisexuality, and she was a truly fascinating character with multiple facets and dualities.
I was very eager to read more about her, but I didn’t anticipate the save Jennifer plotline and didn’t expect for Joan to be as desperate, messy and self-destructive as she was in the beginning of this book. Even with the mayhem that surrounded Joan in The Truth About Him, I had read her as more mature and together then than she was in this book. That might have been because Annie, whose POV in Everything I Left Unsaid introduced me to Joan, saw Joan as an older, more experienced person than herself.
It took me a long time to adjust to who Joan was in this book, in her own POV and her own words, as well as to the way Max saw her, and that too contributed to a certain disconnect between me and the characters.
If I had another reservation about Joan’s characterization in this book, it was the way her sexual orientation was portrayed here. Bisexual characters have a raw deal in this genre. Whenever I come across one, it’s inevitably in an erotic romance, and bisexuality is treated more like a hot kink, there to spice up sex scenes, than like an orientation that functions outside the bedroom too.
For this reason, I loved the scene in The Truth About Him where Annie talks to a waitress who appears to be in a relationship with Joan. The waitress cared about what happened to Joan in a way that was more romantic than sexual, and that made Joan’s bisexuality feel like more than just a kink.
But then in this book, Joan dismisses that relationship a little. Her past boyfriends are referred to as boyfriends – bad boyfriend number one, good boyfriend number one, and bad boyfriend number two. The good boyfriend even has a name, Hector. The waitress isn’t given a name, even in Joan’s mind, and only Max calls her (half-jokingly) good girlfriend number one.
This too could have gone somewhere interesting if it had been explored or fleshed out, but it wasn’t. I ended up wondering whether the way Joan viewed that relationship was supposed to tell me something about Joan, or if it was a way for the author make Joan’s attraction to women less of an issue to those readers who might be put off by it, or might see it as a threat to her future with Max.
Jennie: Hmm. I hadn’t given this a lot of thought before, but I can see your point. There wasn’t a *lot* about Joan’s bisexuality in the book. I can see in retrospect viewing it as, well, not a kink, but a secondary interest, and perhaps playing into stereotypes about lesbian relationships being different from heterosexual ones, more about nurturing or even simply a less complicated respite from a “real” straight relationship. (And FWIW, there is an F/F scene with Joan in the book, but it also involves Max as a spectator, so I’m not sure that helps.)
Max’s trajectory is a little more dramatic than Joan’s; he and Dylan were raised by his motorcycle club member father and a drug addict mother (who did unsavory things like sleep with the other motorcycle club members for drugs, a fact her sons were aware of). Max got into criminal behavior pretty early, and then suffered the guilt of Dylan taking a rap for him for a crime and going to prison. He’s just been drifting in a bad life for quite a while, half expecting someone to take him out at any moment.
Janine: I don’t necessarily agree that Max’s trajectory was more dramatic. Between what happened to Joan’s father and Lagan having her sister, Joan had plenty of drama in her life.
Jennie: Maybe dramatic is not the right word; I was thinking about both of their internalized self-loathing and belief that they could never be happy and normal, and I felt like Max had more of a reason for feeling that way than Joan did.
Janine: Max had a little more basis for self-loathing, but I think Joan had just as much basis to feel cursed.
Jennie: The focus on who these two people were and how their wounds and neuroses meshed was absorbing, for the most part. I wouldn’t go so far as to call Burn Down the Night a character study, but I do like a romance that really hones in on the main characters, and with Max chained to a bed for a chunk of the book, there wasn’t much external action for a lot of it.
On the other hand, I also have limited patience with characters who are just so convinced that they can never have anything good, that nothing will ever work out for them – it’s sort of the mantra of tortured characters but at this point in my reading career it has to be really well done for me not to roll my eyes at least a bit. Joan in particular, though I found her the more sympathetic and interesting character overall, didn’t really seem to have very solid reasons for believing that she was doomed to a life of misery and she could never, ever even try to be happy. Thus her musings on the subject felt melodramatic and maybe even a bit immature – teenagerish – to me, at times.
Janine: Intellectually I understood the reasons for Joan’s emotional turmoil and lack of faith in anything good. When you unpack all that happened to her in childhood and as an adult, it fit. But as I said above, I struggled to square this Joan with the seemingly more mature character we’d met in the first two books.
Jennie: In a way, Max had the opposite problem. He has more of a basis for feeling that his life has been shit so far, and then there’s the fact that he’s been a criminal for a number of years. Here the book cheats a bit, merely implying that he’s killed people, but we know that he was planning a drug deal with Lagan when the book began. I’m not a pearl-clutcher about drugs, but most of what I know about drug dealers leads me to see them, for the most part, as genuinely bad people. So he had that to overcome and in my mind, atone for.
Janine: The parts of Max’s past that were left hazy made me frustrated in a way that was similar to how I felt about the missing piece of Joan’s relationship with the waitress. It wasn’t clear exactly what crimes Max had committed when he led the motorcycle club, and when he referenced spilling blood, whether he’d killed (which he certainly seemed capable of) or only threatened and wounded. Keeping readers in ignorance about it made him more palatable, but it also felt like a shortcut was being taken with his character.
Jennie: Yes, absolutely. This is a complaint I could make about any number of heroes, but it always bugs me at least a little bit. At one point Joan asks Max what he’ll do if she lets him go, and whether he would kill her. His thoughts:
An hour ago, alone in this room before she came back with Sarah, I won’t lie, that had been my plan.
So, I don’t know what to do with a sentence like that. Because he seems like he means it, which is appalling to me and really makes him unsuitable as a romance hero, full stop. So I guess I’m not supposed to take it literally, but rather in a sort of “I was so mad I could kill her” vein. Except that 1) it doesn’t read that way and 2) we know that Max is a genuinely dangerous person who hung around with vile companions (including a doctor who lost his license for raping unconscious patients) in his motorcycle club. So it’s troubling, to say the least.
Janine: Great point. I sometimes wonder, when I read a line like that, whether it’s been fully thought out by the author. I can’t know, one way or the other, but it doesn’t read fully thought out to me.
Spoiler (“spoiler”): Show
Jennie: Max’s defense, sort of, is that the motorcycle club is the only family he’s really had. My problem with that is specific to me and not all that sophisticated: I think motorcycle clubs are stupid. I never watched Sons of Anarchy, and I have never read an MC book before – I’ve given them a wide berth because the notion of grown men who walk around in leather jackets with patches strikes me as juvenile, even silly. Add to that the fact that they are usually at least semi-criminal, and you have someone who I have trouble viewing as romantic hero material.
Janine: I didn’t have that problem, for a few reasons. First, Max was born into the club, which his father belonged to. He didn’t have that much choice about it. Second, he tried to take the club into legit businesses, but others in the club would not agree. Third, he tried to leave the club in the earlier book and was forced to return with threats against Annie. Fourth, and this to me was the most important of these, the club itself is never romanticized or idealized in any of these books. Max’s “brothers” tried to kill him.
Jennie: Well, Dylan got out. I understand why Max would follow his father into the club, but I don’t think he was literally without choice about it. When he tried to leave the club he had been in, and involved in criminal activity, for a number of years – at least that’s my impression.
Janine: Yes. But Max (in his own mind) sacrificed himself to the club so Dylan could get out, so I could understand why he didn’t see an out for himself until after he’d given up on being able to steer the club toward legal activities. And at that point, he did get out, and was forced to return and almost killed for it.
Jennie: I kind of disagree that the club was not romanticized. In one sense, yes, obviously it’s presented in a negative light, and Max is able to acknowledge that the brotherhood thing was mostly bullshit because the “brothers” did horrible things to each other, including sleeping with each other’s wives and trying to kill each other. But I think to a degree any romance that features a dangerous, edgy hero romanticizes the things that make him dangerous and edgy. Which kind of goes to both of our points about authors (and I don’t blame O’Keefe alone for this, not by a long shot) wanting to have it both ways with bad boy heroes.
Janine: I can’t disagree with that last point. If anything, my problem was that Max himself, unlike the club, was almost too whitewashed for a former MC President. But I went with it, because he grew on me.
Jennie: I cared a lot more about Joan, even when she exasperated me (which mirrors my feelings about Dylan and Annie in the first two books).
Janine: A third character I wanted to understand better was Lagan. He was the leader of a cult, but he also ran a meth lab and sold the stuff. For most of the book, he seems more driven by a need for power and money than by kooky religious beliefs. I had decided that he was a big fraud, and only a cult leader for sex and profit when, late in the book, he said that the Lord was on his side. That made me go back to being confused about what the motives for his actions were.
Jennie: I really didn’t care about Lagan one way or another, honestly. Though your point is still a good one. (I did wonder at the likelihood of Joan ever getting caught up in Lagan’s web; she was screwed up, but not the sort of suggestible type I would expect Lagan to prey on.)
Janine: Agreed. As you can see from my comments, my biggest issue was the missing or conflicting information about the characters. But maybe I’m too hard on the book, because other parts of Joan and Max’s inner emotional lives, as well as certain aspects of their pasts, are fleshed out beautifully. For example, there’s a story Max tells about walking home with a rock in his knee as a boy (after a bicycle crash) that is just so telling about his childhood, his relationships with his brother, and his relationship with his dad.
Jennie: Both of them had complicated sibling relationships and I thought those were well-depicted. The internal musings (sometimes verbalized) got repetitive and tiresome for me. Yes, I get that you think you don’t deserve happiness. Yes, I get that your life has been hard. You don’t need to keep saying it.
Janine: There was a little bit much of that, I agree.
I loved Joan’s relationship with her aunt Fern and the way things had gone wrong between them although neither of them truly wanted things to go wrong. Each had a chip on her shoulder and defenses that were hard to get past. Neither knew how to give what the other needed from her, but when they finally resolved things, it was very satisfying.
Janine: I want to talk a bit about Joan and Max as a couple. Joan and Max together have terrific chemistry, and though I was prepared to think badly of Max after his treatment of Dylan in the earlier books, I ended up liking him very much. I especially liked it when he was tender with Joan in bed, because tenderness was what Joan needed yet feared the most. Because I started out more on Joan’s side, I was surprised that I ended up more on Max’s side.
Jennie: Max came around quicker than Joan did, to thinking it would be worth at least trying to have a functional relationship and life, and that did turn me around on him quite a bit.
Janine: O’Keefe has a way of writing about dangerous aspects of romantic relationships, like intimacy that comes too soon, trust and distrust that are unearned, and sabotage, that feels very honest and true. Her portrayal of people who border on dysfunctional is psychologically astute. Her characters hurt the ones they love, but then they figure themselves out and try to do better.
All of that was sprinkled into Everything I Left Unsaid and The Truth About Him, but in this book, the danger to the characters is more interior, and the hurt and dysfunction are magnified, because Joan and Max want hurt—both to feel it, and to dish it out. There’s a sex scene in which Joan slaps Max hard across the face and that fit these characters, but it was also difficult for me to read.
This book is emotionally raw in places, and doesn’t play it safe, but O’Keefe ultimately convinced me that Max and Joan could be good for each other. More that Max was good for Joan, but maybe less that Joan was good for Max.
Still, I thought the epilogue was too happy for all that had preceded it, and after all the gritty realism, I think I might have preferred a HFN ending to the HEA that we got.
Jennie: Eh, I figure what’s an epilogue without a little schmaltz?
Janine: The schmaltzy tone didn’t fit the tone of the rest of the book, though. It felt like two different books pieced together. The more I think about this book the more I feel it needed to be fuller and longer to fulfill its potential. But I am still eager for Tiffany’s story!
Jennie: I am very interested in Tiffany but I hate everything I’ve seen of Blake so he’s really going to have to turn around for me to be able to accept him as a hero.
Janine: I’m not keen on Blake either. I’ll still read the next book because I hope to see Tiffany bring him to his knees.
What is your grade for Burn Down the Night, Jennie? O’Keefe writes smart books but this one never completely gelled for me, so I’m giving it a C+.
Jennie: I think it was more in line with the first two books in the series for me than it was for you. I believe I gave both of those a B+ grade, and I was going to give Burn Down the Night the same, but looking at all the things I complained about, a B is probably a more accurate grade.