REVIEW: Crazy for Love by Victoria Dahl
Having really enjoyed your contemporary Romances set in Tumble Creek, I was nevertheless looking forward to the change of scene in Crazy for Love. Like my favorite contemporaries, Crazy for Love has smart dialogue, witty prose, and complicated characters. However, I was not ultimately crazy in love with this book, which felt rushed and conflicted to me, despite the intriguing premise and unusual hero.
Chloe Turner really needs a break. Ever since her fiancé was discovered to have faked his own death before their wedding, Chloe has been branded a world-class Bridezilla and hounded by the paparazzi. No nice, normal woman would have her fiancé go to such extremes, right? And with fame-seeking relatives offering salacious lies about bad bride behavior, Chloe doesn't have a chance to present a different reality, let alone come to terms with the mystery around why Thomas would fake his own death to get out of marrying her. So when Chloe's best friend Jenn proposes a getaway to an isolated resort on Virginia's White Rock Island, Chloe is determined to go and have a good time. So when Chloe and Jenn spot their next-door neighbors, two hunky brothers (Max and Elliot Sullivan), they can only hope the guys aren't paparazzi in disguise, because they're too good looking to ignore.
But Max and Elliott are nursing their own wounds. Elliott's wife left him when she couldn't drag enough of his attention away from his job at the CDC, and Max had recently been dumped by his latest girlfriend, in accordance with his unique relationship pattern:
His woman problems had started out innocently enough. He liked to take care of things. To make sure the details of life were addressed. To make sure that people were taken care of.
There was no mystery about the origins of this neurosis. Their father had been an irresponsible, selfish bastard with no interest in taking care of anyone but himself. As the older son, Max had found himself stepping into that role. But something about the responsibility had gotten stuck deep inside him like a barbed hook. He couldn't ignore it, even when any rational person would be able to walk away. The need to guide people out of trouble was a painful tugging in his brain. And women in trouble…
…Everyone thought he was attracted to bad girls. The truth was, they were attracted to him, and he was pathologically unable to turn his back on someone in trouble.
So here's Max, who is "pathologically" drawn to women in trouble, and Chloe, who is most definitely in trouble at the moment – a "perfect" match?
Yes and no. Yes, in the sense that Max and Chloe are the primary romantic protagonists of Crazy for Love, so we know they will end up together and in love. But Chloe is woman who is relatively new to trouble and not at all used to thinking of herself as someone who needs help, while Max has decided it is past time to break himself of his neurotic and self-destructive habit with needy women. And this is the real appeal of Crazy for Love for me – that, like other Dahl books, the superficial set-up for the couple is flipped on its head by the "real" people underneath the cliché.
Away from the paparazzi, Max has no idea that Chloe is the infamous Bridezilla, because when he's not vacationing with his workaholic brother, he is isolated on a boat supervising treasure hunting dives. So their attraction, while not uncomplicated, due to Chloe's gun-shyness and Max's innate mother-hennishness, can develop outside the expectations and difficulties that would present themselves in "real life." From Max's side, Chloe appears to be one of the first women he's met in a long time who is nice, normal, and stable, and the fact that she sees through his charming control early on (a product of her own paranoid watchfulness in the wake of Thomas's betrayal) allows Max to relax into the idea that he really might be capable of a normal romantic relationship (despite the fact that his safety anxieties are not exactly normal).
"You've got to find a girl who doesn't mind that you're a control freak."
"I'm not a control freak."
"You totally are. Embrace it."
"I just want people to be careful. That's all."
"Uh-huh. Also, you're a control freak."
"I'm n-‘" …
"I take care of people," he murmured. "They need me."
But this was a new conversation for him, and his adamance couldn't be sustained, not when Chloe straddled his thighs and continued her persuasive techniques. And she was so damn naked.
"Say it, Max. You'll feel better." …
"You're right," he admitted. "I am a control freak."
The problem, of course, is that while Max is relieved at his ability to be honest with Chloe, she's hiding something significant from him, something that will make him reconsider the entire basis of her appeal to him. And when he finds out what has happened to Chloe, he is further challenged by Chloe's persuasive insistence that she is not the woman being portrayed as a spoiled, out of control Bridezilla who's fiancée is so desperate to get away from her that he fakes his own death. Because Chloe does not even partly understand what happened with Thomas, it is impossible for Max to get an accurate picture of the situation. How can a nice, strong, insightful woman have something that like happen to her? And yet, Chloe hardly seems like the type of woman being portrayed in the media.
There is a lot about Crazy for Love that is admirably interesting and engaging. I loved that Max was a control freak who smoothed over his neurosis with charm; it was hysterical watching him anticipate everything that could go wrong in every situation and try to intervene before disaster struck. I also really appreciated and enjoyed the way Max's issues are challenged by Chloe, a woman who is independent and strong, but whose life circumstances seem to make her a risk for a man who cannot necessarily tell the difference between a woman who needs support and a woman who needs to be fixed. And the dialogue between them was forthright and witty and often compelling:
"Chloe? Are you okay?
"I don't know." She raised her head to see him watching her with his hands in his pockets. And she decided she was ready for more truth. "Why did you leave yesterday?"
He tipped his head back and looked at the ceiling. "Chloe…I don't know how to handle this. You told me to go. You told me you needed to work it out on your own."
Even though he couldn't see her, she nodded. She had told him to go, so she couldn't figure out why she was so damn mad at him. "I didn't need you," she conceded. "And I know I told you to leave, but …"
He shook his head and ran a hand through his hair before looking at her again. "But what? Chloe, I swear this is new territory for me. I'm lost. I can't take care of you, and you don't want to be taken care of! So what was I supposed to do?"
"You're supposed to . . . " It was impossible to explain. The words tumbled in her mind, still full of hurt and anger. "You're supposed to stay, Max. You stay because I don't need you. You stay because when someone tells you they're strong and they don't need help, you stand there and offer it anyway!"
It's this kind of emotional complexity I appreciate in Dahl's contemporaries – these are characters who are emotionally strong but not untroubled. So why didn't the book as a whole really work for me? Because these two complicated characters required more book than they got here.
Max, for example, presents a contradiction in the fact that he is a treasure hunter who anxiously worries about everyone's safety. While the narrative offers a reason a guy like Max would choose such a high-risk profession, it did not jibe for me in a book. At all. Because Max's control issues were presented as highly developed, I just could not suspend disbelief that a guy like that would have chosen treasure hunting as a profession. In fact, his anxiety issues were so well-developed in the book that it was amazing to me he did not suffer from an ulcer and require the occasional assistance of Xanax. Because Max's issues drove so much of the romantic conflict, they needed to have substance. But there was just so much going on in Crazy for Love that they felt a bit overdrawn and therefore incompatible with other aspects of his character.
Similarly, it was difficult for me to reconcile how Chloe could have had such poor insight into her erstwhile fiancé Thomas but understand something about Max so early in their relationship – something no one else in his life, including his brother, with whom he seems very close – does not. And even if we could allow for Chloe's lack of perceptiveness about Thomas, her best friend Jenn is keeping a big secret from her, as well, and Chloe seems to have no clue about that for quite a long time, either. All of which left me feeling like Chloe was simultaneously being portrayed as a woman with poor judgment about people and yet incredibly perceptive about Max and wise in her attraction to him. Her character just did not cohere for me in a way that made everything that was going on in her life, romantically and otherwise, consistently apprehensible.
Part of the problem, I think, was the inclusion of a sweet but distracting secondary romance between Jenn and Elliott, which was useful primarily for elucidating issues around the secret Jenn is keeping from Chloe (which is necessary for the reader to have to understand many of the things Chloe doesn't, things which will likely affect our ability to embrace her relationship with Max in light of Chloe's recent history with Thomas). Then there are the legal proceedings around Thomas's flight (pending charges, etc.), which are necessary to reveal the answers to questions around why he fled, but also take up substantial narrative space. Even at almost 400 pages, Crazy for Love seemed more forced and rushed than it should have been, and in the end I felt that there were too many complications that rendered the complexity of the book underserved. At times I actually felt that the narrative was overtly trying to answer questions I had as a reader (questions a conscientious author should, I think, anticipate in a reader), which I felt reflected both thoughtfulness and a lack of natural coherence in the characters. Believing that these two complicated people managed to transition from lust to love with everything going on in their lives, in the novel, and in the relatively short tenure of their contact was just too much for me.
Readers who find Dahl’s Tumble Creek women a bit too sexually forward will, I suspect, find Chloe and Jenn much more to their liking. For me, none of the four central characters was unlikeable, although Jenn and Elliot’s relationship seemed more narratively convenient to me than emotionally compelling. Even Max and Chloe’s relationship felt to me more summarized than cemented in an emotionally convincing way.
Had Crazy for Love not been so smart and witty in its dialogue and overall prose, my grade would have suffered even more, I'm afraid. But even as I admired the thoughtfulness of the idea behind the book and the attempts to make the magnitude of the project fit within its pages, in the end the execution was just not successful for me, and the book felt more forced and told to me, as a reader, than organically unfolding and blossoming. C+