Review: Crazy Thing Called Love by Molly O'Keefe
My reviews of Molly O'Keefe's Crooked Creek Ranch series are probably starting to get a bit dull.
Here's a quick synopsis of the crux of each of my reviews,
Wow! These characters are fully fleshed-out, complex people. I completely believed in their romance because their path toward happiness was hard and took work, but the payoff was completely worth it! This pushes the boundaries of what we talk about when we talk about characters and stories in romance! Exclamation points!
Each of these three novels explores the path of challenging, driven, damaged people as they find happiness together. Crazy Thing Called Love features Madelyn (formerly known as Maddy), a rising star who hosts a morning talk show in Dallas, and Billy, an aging hockey enforcer whose career is at rock bottom.
Oh, and Billy and Maddy used to be married.
This is a scenario I usually would avoid reading, because generally speaking, it seems that relationships run their course for a reason, so the reconciliations generally read as superficial or not long lasting in the context of real life. However, in the case of Crazy Thing Called Love, the setup works.
Billy and Maddy married young--way young--and while they were in love, they were also immature and their marriage was rooted in their mutual desire to escape their lives. Billy's hockey career was their ticket out.
Maddy left Billy, having lost herself and her identity amidst Billy's rising stardom and remade herself into a polished, confident local media star. But in a strange way, within her job she also loses a piece of herself,
AM Dallas needed her to be the trusted, knowledgeable, well-dressed, and skinny best friend every woman in Dallas wanted to have. She didn’t have opinions, or outrage or passion. She smiled and told people about the delicious wonder that was gluten-free cheese.
Billy's in desperate need of a new image after spending the season riding the bench for the Dallas Mavericks (yes, this makes me snicker, because the Mavericks are a basketball team, not a hockey team). He has a lot of anger and bitterness and has the potential to go in a very dark direction.
When Maddy's talk show proposes proposes a makeover of Dallas's notorious bad boy hockey player--clothes, hair, etiquette, the works--she balks, not wanting to revisit that part of her life and definitely not wanting her coworkers to know her past. But Billy embraces the chance to reconnect with his ex-wife.
Their forced renunion after 14 years is challenging, to say the least.
As a rule Billy didn’t believe in fate, but having her come back into his life when it was at its very darkest, that seemed important. Like something he shouldn’t ignore. Something he didn’t want to ignore.
I'm not going to sugar-coat it, these characters will be hit or miss for readers.
However, I immensely enjoyed the challenging personalities in Crazy Thing Called Loved. Both are difficult personalities because they have carefully cultivated public identities which absorb them.
That grin, macabre and strange, pulled and twisted by the pink knot of his scar. She knew there were millions of people in the world who believed the scar made him ugly. In her eyes, however, it was one of the most beautiful things about him. Maybe because she knew how he’d gotten it. She looked at that scar and remembered him leaning out the window, telling her everything was going to be fine.
Billy is known for his aggression on the ice--that's what he's let people see. But as we get to know him, he's a lot more complicated an vulnerable than he lets people see.
Billy swore to himself. He was going to have to mingle and shit. In his excitement to see Maddy, he’d managed to forget that small detail.
Billy's character walks a very fine line, and some people may not buy that Billy's anger isn't a dangerous sort of anger, that it was one which festered because of sorrow and hurt. Some readers will probably interpret Billy as volatile and possibly violent, and I understand that perspective. However, my reading of his character is that he's never dangerous to anyone other than himself and he doesn't actually want to be the embodiment of the on-ice character he's constructed--he just doesn't know any other way to be.
As with Can't Buy Me Love, the perspective of the athlete character was handled really well (and you know how picky I am about that).
Like Luc in that earlier Crooked Creek Ranch book, Billy has defined himself as only a hockey player for such a long time that seeing beyond that is really, really hard and it messes with his self-identity. It's sad and authentic. Because of the nature of his profession the role he plays on his team, some people will be put off by him and that's really unfortunate, because I really enjoyed his story arc and his figuring out for himself that he was allowed to expect and want more and as a result give more of himself to Maddy.
But again, he showed this surprising understanding—this heartbreaking empathy—and stepped back, granting her some distance.
Madelyn is actually a tougher nut because we don't know a whole lot about what went wrong in their marriage, aside from that she really lost herself (which is a common affliction, especially among young people who marry to escape their circumstances) and wanted more than simply being an athlete's wife.
Maddy was right, she was a different person than the girl she’d been. More exciting. More interesting. More realized. Like all the promise in that young girl had not only been fulfilled, but surpassed.
Her public image as the perfect newscaster is in some ways less sympathetic, but I really felt terribly for her because she was so closed off from other people in a way that wasn't healthy. It saddens me that I've read a number of reviews of this book calling Maddy "a bitch." I don't think she's a "bitch" at all. She's very sympathetic, but not in the way that traditionally elicits sympathy for female characters in romance novels. Maddy's focused on her career and not much else and she doesn't apologize for it. Though, she does haveta weird, all-white apartment which she probably should apologize for.
I really respect that Maddy is never a victim. Despite that she's had a tough road, she's strong and focused. She's made herself into a success against the odds of her upbringing and has built up walls around herself.
Somehow, she’d figured out how to curb all that. The ice queen at the top of the table didn’t look like she ever screamed, and she certainly didn’t look like she’d faced off against Kevin Dockrill in the cafeteria of Schelany High School or destroyed every single CD in Billy’s extensive Bruce Springsteen collection. No, in fact, the woman sitting there looked kind of stupid. And like she barely gave a shit. She was pretty, sure—but she cultivated a certain emptiness. A cool distance. For a stark and stomach-spinning moment, she seemed like a stranger.
We learn about Billy and Maddy's teen years together through a series of flashbacks, which explains so much about their history and why their relationship couldn't work the first time around. Billy, in particular, has a reason for all his anger and bitterness and Maddy was the only good thing in his life before hockey.
About halfway into Crazy Thing Called Love, an important secondary character is introduced & she makes this book.
The thing is, this character is a 13 year old girl (Becky) and I usually shy away from stories with kids (I know, I'm awful, but they usually don't add a lot to the plot) but she and her little brother are realistic and believable and heart-breaking. Because of these characters, Billy and Maddy are forced to look outside themselves, and it's the jolt they both needed.
“Don’t. Oh God, Becky.” He stood there, helpless, and watched her pick herself up, get back on her feet. His entire body ached to touch her, to pick her up and carry her out of danger. But she wasn’t going to let him. No one took care of Becky. Tears ached behind his eyes.
I would be thrilled to read an entire novel about Becky, to be quite honest. Unlike kids in so many romance-centered novels, she's complicated and leaps out of the page. Interestingly, I guessed that the introduction of the children into the plot would take that characters--especially Maddy--in a predictable direction. However, I couldn't have been more wrong.
That's what distinguishes the Crooked Creek Ranch series--it subverts readers' expectations.
Take the makeover story, for example. It's been done approximately one zillion times. But in Crazy Thing Called Love, it's the guy who's rough and uncouth and is ultimately transformed.
“Holy crap, are they supposed to fit like this?” he asked, doing up the button and zipper. The boots he slipped into were brown and worn but so soft they felt like butter. “Do I look ridiculous?” Sabine’s eyes were round in her face, her mouth open. “Oh God,” he muttered. “This is a huge mistake—” “No. No, Billy.” She stopped him from taking off the vest. “You look incredible! Honestly … incredible.” Oh. He felt himself blushing and he ran a hand down the vest. It did feel nice, the fabric. And the pants. He turned to glance in a mirror beside the rack of clothes. His package looked awesome!
Even though much of the makeover plot-line adds (very needed) humor, it's refreshing to see the ugly duckling transformed as a male character and, frankly, it works better in that context. It's funnier and actually more sensitive than it is when it's a female character, probably because men's appearance is a less loaded and judgment-laden subject than that of women.
Similarly, the plot which introduces Becky and her little brother to Billy and Madelyn's story surprised me. I was initially annoyed because I assumed that their insertion into the plot would result in a particular outcome, and outcome I didn't think felt right for the characters, especially Maddy. However, I was totally and completely wrong about the direction of that storyline.
In the world of Crazy Thing Called Love and the other Crooked Creek Ranch novels, characters are allowed to find themselves--and each other--and those concepts aren't mutually exclusive like they are far too often in romance fiction.
No one suddenly decides that everything they wanted out of life is moot simply because they've found love; no one decides that they don't need that career they worked for hard for because they met a hot dude; It's a refreshing, modern perspective and makes this book and series stand out and push envelope of genre conventions.
I need you, he thought, fighting the instinct to grab her, to cling to her. I need you to do this with me. I can’t do it alone, and don’t want to think of doing it without you. But he knew that was her great fear. That she’d get sucked into his life and lose herself in the process. If she was going to help him, she needed to be there by choice.
I know Molly is a huge Friday Night Lights fan (yes, it all really does come back to FNL, folks) and the way relationships are explored in the Crooked Creek Ranch series really reminds me of the arc of many of the romantic relationships in that television show. Tim and Tyra*, Matt and Julie, Coach and Tami, they all have to figure out how to make their love work without the other without allowing that love to suffocate their individuality. That nuance is one of the biggest reasons I recommend Crazy Thing Called Love--and the rest of this series--so very highly.
Also Reviewed on CEFS:
Can't Buy Me Love
Can't Hurry Love
Disclosure: Received for review from the publisher.