Tuesday, June 25, 2013

"Can't Buy Me Love," by Molly O'Keefe (Bantam, 2012)

The Chick: Tara Jean Sweet, a.k.a. Jane Simmons. A fashion designer with a criminal history working for the wealthy Lyle Baker, she agrees to be his fake fiancee in order to manipulate his children into coming home.
The Rub: When Lyle dies, Tara Jean is left to share the business with his son - his very angry, disconcertingly sexy, daddy-issues-riddled son.
Dream Casting: Katherine Heigl.

The Dude: Wayne "Luc" Baker, a.k.a. The Ice Man. An aging hockey player who just wants one more year on the ice to try and win the Stanley Cup - as long as he can convince his team that he doesn't actually have a dangerous head injury.
The Rub: Part of his father's will stipulates he has to stay on the ranch for five months or his destitute sister will get nothing - but the last thing he wants is memories of his father conflicting with his compulsive attraction to his gold-digging fiancee.
Dream Casting: Bradley Cooper.

The Plot:

Lyle Baker: Be my fake fiancee to lure my spoiled children home to roost!

Tara Jean: Sure!

Luc: Why am I here?

Lyle: One last order of Daddy Issues before I croak! Mwahahahaha--*dies*

Luc: You're a ho! Except that you're smart and tough and stuff....

Tara Jean: You're a spoiled brat! Wait, you have actual decency and chivalry and compassion for others?

Luc: Apology sex?

Tara Jean: Just what I was thinking! Hssss! Feelings! They burn! *flees*


Tara Jean: NO!


Tara Jean and Luc: Let's not tell her she's dating a monster. She's in a really fragile state right now. We are such a smart team of good decision makers--

Psychotic Evil Ex Dennis: Hey I'm here with a gun for the Could Have Been Avoided Climax!

Tara Jean and Luc: ... poop.

Psychotic Evil Ex Dennis: *defeated*

Eli, Secondary Character Who Gets His Own Book: At least it's a good climax! And I got to shoot my gun like a badass and everything! Silver lining!

Luc: I can't love you until you learn to love yourself.

Tara Jean: Give me a few days of introspection so that I can show up dramatically at your press conference. ... Ta da!


Romance Convention Checklist:

  • 1 Set of Daddy Issues
  • 1 Set of Mommy Issues
  • 1 Very Bad Dad (Eventually Deceased)
  • 1 Awesomely Fierce Supermodel Mum
  • Several Cows
  • 1 (Possible) Brain-Eating Protein
  • 1 Evil Ex
  • 1 Plot Moppet
  • Several Bags of Candy
  • 1 Cheap Shot on the Ice
  • 1 Very Short Leather Skirt
  • 2 Prequel Baiting Characters (Eli and Victoria)

The Word: I'll admit it - I think I've become burnt out on romances. For a couple of years, I read exclusively romance and over-reading in the same genre left me especially sensitive to tropes that I hate - like the TSTL heroine. The Slutty Ex. The Baby Awakening (where the heroine holds a stranger's baby and realizes Damn I Need to Be a Mother Right The Hell Now). I couldn't just sit back, relax, and enjoy the fluff the way that I used to. And, looking back, the recent romances that I've loved have all confronted or reversed a popular trope in some way.

It hasn't made me stop reading romance yet, but it has made me cagey about trying new authors I haven't read before.

Which is why I must offer thanks to Dear Author and The Hypeless Romantic for their glowing reviews of Molly O'Keefe's novel Can't Buy Me Love, the first in a trilogy about a Dallas cattle ranch.

At the risk of dipping into my inadequate Stefon impersonation, this novel has everything: smart heroines with white trash pasts, alpha heroes with actual restraint, flawed but not demonized supporting characters, evil but still developed father figures. And who's that? Is that Celine Dion? No! It's the hero's French-Canadian supermodel mother who is Fierce and Gorgeous and not depicted as a superficial, unloving aging glamazon!

But let's back up a bit. Our heroine is Tara Jean Sweet, a fashion designer with a Dark Past who singlehandedly saved Baker Leather with her gleefully trampy designs for boots, bustiers, and hot pants. She owes her success and her new life to her boss, professional old coot Lyle Baker. It's because she owes Lyle everything that she's willing to pose as his new gold-digging fiancee in order to trick his estranged children Luc and Victoria back to his Texas ranch before he succumbs to illness/old age/extreme bitterness.

And it works - prodigal daughter Victoria returns to claim her share of the inheritance in order to build a new life for herself and her son. Prodigal son Luc, known as the "Ice Man," is a world-famous hockey player, so he has no need of money and even less need to fulfill his despised father's manipulative schemes. However, he's also nursing a secret head injury that could jeopardize his chances of playing one more year and finally winning the Stanley Cup before retiring, and his father's ranch is the perfect place to hide from the press during the off-season.

There are a lot of reasons this novel works, so I'll focus my review on the two top reasons: the characters, and the plot parallels.

The character development in this novel is simply amazing. These characters are flawed and angry and pathetic and self-loathing and leap to incorrect assumptions, but they are given the backgrounds, development, and motivations to explain the flawed ways they think and behave. Tara Jean and Luc start out at odds (he thinks she's a gold-digging ho, she thinks he's a spoiled Poor Little Rich Boy), even though their deep-seated insecurities are eerily similar.

Tara Jean has no self-esteem to speak of. She's grateful to Lyle for the chance to make a legitimate living, but she has never forgiven herself for her con artist past. She repeatedly describes herself as a "monster," a "poison," or a "frozen desert," and feels unworthy of real relationships. Her self-loathing is serious and deeply-ingrained, and her core conflict rests between her sincere desire to change versus her conviction that she's unable to. That being said, she's a survivor who knows how to put on a good game face, and she refuses to let Luc drive her away from the business she's built.

Luc, for his part, is smart enough to realize when the facts don't match up with his assumptions. He's also observant enough to glimpse the real Tara Jean beneath her Bimbo Barbie facade, so we don't get chapter after chapter of Luc misunderstanding Tara Jean's actions. He simply becomes more and more intrigued by her, which both excites and terrifies her. He also hopes to use her as a distraction from his own impending identity crisis: he operates in violent denial of his doctor's diagnosis that any further injury could handicap him permanently, and he refuses to accept that he cannot play hockey anymore. Because without hockey, who is he? Just the failure his father always predicted he'd be?

I loved Tara Jean, who is a hilarious and deeply empathetic character who, despite her constant guilt and self-recriminations, never turns herself into a martyr or a doormat for other people. However, I adored Luc, simply because he upended all of my own expectations of Violent Athletic Alpha Males. He is a very large and very angry character - he's constantly wrestling with his temper at the cruel hand fate has dealt him (his team lost the Stanley Cup after he was knocked out in the final period of the seventh game of the playoffs). However, he possesses a keen awareness of his rage and the possible effects it could have on his friends and family, so while it creates fascinating inner conflict, it never manifests in threatening or thuggish outer conflict.

The thing is, both Tara Jean and Luc come to sincerely like each other independently of the goals or careers they've focused their respective Angsts on, and their romance develops as each tries to fix the splinter in the other's eye while ignoring the log in their own. However, it's darn near impossible for them to try and heal the other's vulnerabilities without revealing their own, and their respective angsts complement each other nicely.

The dominant theme in this novel is self-worth, and what (or who) determines one's self-worth. Tara Jean, Luc, and even Luc's sister Victoria are all motivated by what they feel makes them worthy of love and their obsession with obtaining or retaining that worth leads them to push away the things that really matter.

This presents an interesting comparison between Tara Jean and Victoria. Both used to be involved with con artists who ruined their lives (Victoria's wealthy financier husband turned out to be a Ponzi schemer, who killed himself when his lies came to light) and both have cripplingly low self-esteem as a result. However, while Tara Jean responded to her crisis by refusing to depend on anyone ever again, Victoria believes her only value is in being dependent. Getting a job is unthinkable - as a 36-year-old former society wife, what skills does she have? Instead, she's convinced the only way she can provide for her son is by collecting on her father's inheritance or marrying another wealthy man. She has such a low opinion of herself that she believes she can only obtain worth by latching on to other people.

This leads to some pretty entertaining pot-calling-the-kettle-black conflicts between her and Tara Jean, but it also leads to the one weak point in the story. When Dennis, Tara Jean's former partner in crime shows up and sets his sights on Victoria (who is all too pathetically eager to believe the flimflam he's selling her), Tara Jean and Luc decide not to tell her that Dennis is a psychotic and violent convict because that would hurt her pweshus widdle feelings too much. They basically try to tiptoe around the issue and handle things behind Victoria's back but it predictably blows up in everyone's faces and makes everyone look really stupid.

Apart from that, Can't Buy Me Love is an excellently-paced romance with intelligent, well-realized characters, wonderful writing, and a hefty serving of emotional darkness. Just how I like it!

Looks like I'm not completely burnt out on new authors after all.


  1. I feel like I always see this cover whenever I browse on Amazon but then I never end up buying it, BUT now I will because yay characterization and good writing! Also, abs.