Wednesday, July 14, 2010

"Tangled Up In You," by Rachel Gibson

The Chick: Maddie Jones, a.k.a. "Maddie Dupree." Growing up pretty much on her own turned Maddie into a successful woman who knows how to take care of herself. When she heads to the town of Truly, Idaho, to write a book about how her mother died, she thinks she's strong enough to handle the past.
The Rub: She doesn't think she's the type to fall head over heels in love, much less with the son of the people responsible for her mother's death. So what gives?
Dream Casting: Lauren Graham.

The Dude: Mick Hennessy. He moved back to Truly with only two goals in mind - to forget his parents' sordid past, and take care of his unstable sister and her son, but nosy true crime writer Maddie Dupree seriously threatens the first of his goals.
The Rub: So why does he find her so damn attractive?
Dream Casting: Eric Bana.

The Plot:

Maddie: I just want to write a book about my mother who was murdered by a psycho!

Mick: I just want to get over my past as the son of a murdering psycho!

Maddie: Well hey there, hot stuff.

Mick: Well, hello ther- wait, are you writing a book about me? Dammit, you're still hawt! Let's get it on!

Maddie: Whee!

Maddie and Mick: *SexyTimes*

Maddie: Wait, wait, I have to tell you - your mom killed my mom, back in the day. Just FYI.

Mick: Are you SHITTING me?

Maddie: No.

Mick: ........DAMMIT, STILL hawt. Let's get married!

Maddie: HOORAY!

Romance Convention Checklist

2 Intertwined Dark Pasts

3 Inconveniently Dead Parents

1 Emotional Sister

1 Secondary Romance

1 Precocious Child

1 Precocious Animal

Several Illegal Fireworks

2 Local Bars

Several Food-Scented Bodyscrubs

The Word: This is my first Rachel Gibson novel, but I gotta say, this author's got guts. The central plot element of Tangled Up In You is incredibly dark, and could have gone in any number of wrong directions, but Gibson makes you take it for what it is - something that can't be solved or explained away, but can provide an interesting character drama between two different - and yet similar - characters.

Twenty-nine years ago, in the small town of Truly, Idaho, a fed-up housewife entered her husband's bar with a shotgun and shot him and his mistress dead, and then turned the gun on herself.

The mistress, a twenty-four-year-old waitress named Alice, had a young daughter named Maddie, who grew up to be a successful true crime writer in Boise. Raised by an elderly great-aunt, Maddie learned how to take care of herself and while she enjoys the life she has, she can't help but wonder how things might have turned out differently if her mother hadn't been murdered. When she uncovers some old journals of her mother's after her great-aunt's death, Maddie decides to travel back to Truly and see if she can't give herself some closure by turning the experience into a book.

First on her list of things to do is a trip to Mort's, one of Truly's bars, to meet with the owner, Mick Hennessy. Mick has a reputation for more than just fighting, womanizing, and his military service - it was his mother who walked into that bar and murdered his father, along with the woman he was cheating with, before committing suicide. Maddie introduces herself by her pen name, and is caught off-guard by how charming and attractive Mick is.

Despite sharing some entertaining banter, Maddie knows a relationship between them is entirely inappropriate and she tries to focus on her investigation into the murder-suicide, with limited results. Few townsfolk are willing to dish on the details, and those that do lay most of the blame on Alice's shoulders, for being the slutty homewrecker who made decent Rose Hennessy snap. Also, despite Maddie's determination to stay away from Mick, neither of them can deny the explosive chemistry between them.

This being a small community, it doesn't take long for Mick to discover why Maddie's in town - although he still doesn't realize her true identity. Just the knowledge that some jumped-up writer wants to drag all of his carefully-hidden skeletons out of the closet is enough to piss him off. Mick and his older sister Meg endured a hellish childhood subjected to the townsfolk's stares and gossip, and while he eventually escaped by joining the military, his sister never really recovered. Mick returned to Truly to help his emotionally fragile sister and provide a good role model for his nephew Travis, and he knows Maddie's arrival - timed just when the gossip seems to have died down for good - will bring only more bad luck to the Hennessy family.

It's so interesting to watch Mick and Maddie connect because they both evolved the same way from the same incident with their parents, even though both see the situation from a different perspective. Maddie taught herself to shun emotion because it makes one dependent - a belief enforced by the pages of her flighty mother's journals, describing a woman who flitted from man to man, looking for one to support her. Mick, meanwhile, keeps himself calm and collected because his experience with his parents (and their epic marital spats) taught him to equate emotion with mental illness, and that dwelling on the past (like his sister does) is unhealthy.

There's no real way to explain something as incomprehensible as a murder-suicide, and Rachel Gibson doesn't try to. Rather, she explores how people can move on from a tragedy that cannot be understood by trying to understand the people behind it, while learning more about themselves in the bargain. Initially, Maddie resents how the townsfolk seem to close ranks around the memory of a psycho murdering housewife over a waitress who only slept around, and oblivious Mick unintentionally enrages Maddie by saying how maybe "that waitress" drove a put-upon woman too far.

Following the "same but different" theme, the drama and tension come from how both protagonists learn the uselessness of blaming and finger pointing - but at different stages in the story. This leads to why I personally wasn't bothered by the fact that Maddie continues to hide her true identity from Mick until the end. Maddie learns pretty quickly that she has no real reason to hate Mick or Meg, especially once she learns their upbringing wasn't that different from her own. All of them became orphans that night, 29 years ago. Her unexpected and growing empathy for the Hennessys helps to her open up emotionally about the death of her mother and paves the way for her developing affection for Mick.

While Maddie's empathy leads to love, for Mick, the development is reversed - he learns to love Maddie first, before he knows her connection to his past. Because of that, when the inevitable Big Reveal comes, and his wrongheaded desire to bury the past makes him do Typical 11th Hour Stupid Things, it's too late for him to throw Maddie in the closet along with all of his other skeletons.

So, with all the good, there is some not-so-good. Rachel Gibson devotes an annoyingly large amount of time touting the Smug Marrieds from her previous books (complete with unnecessary story infodumps) as well as the sequel-baiting characters who haven't gotten books yet. I just found these segments uninteresting and intrusive. As well, the secondary romance seemed undercooked and unnecessary - it takes places over two measly scenes.

Still, despite these flaws, this is a solid book that, even with the darkness of the conflict, still allows for fantastic banter (like how Mick adores Maddie's food-flavoured bubblebaths), humour, and believable romance.

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