{Review} Can't Buy Me Love by Molly O'Keefe

{Review} Can't Buy Me Love by Molly O'Keefe

… she realized she wanted more. Not a husband or a bunch of kids burping on her clothes … but a life. A real one. A chance to figure out who she was…

Can't Buy Me Love by Molly O'Keefe

Can't Buy Me Love by Molly O'Keefe

When I read that Molly O’Keefe’s main character in Can’t Buy Me Love was inspired by Tyra Collette from Friday Night Lights (“Tyra times 10” is how she referred to her), I immediately set aside my deeply-held philosophical objection to images of creepy waxed man chests* to check out her take on one of my favorite fictional characters. 

What I found in Can’t Buy Me Love was surprising. 

You know I’m not a voracious romance reader, nor an expert on the subject like Rebeca is, so I probably have a lot of preconceived notions about what a Big R Romance is. Most of those notions went straight out the window with Can’t Buy Me Love. 

Tara Jean Sweet is a prototypical woman from the wrong side of the tracks. She’s spent much of her life scrapping and fighting for every little thing she has. When she’s offered a stake in a Texas rancher’s leather business (she already designs items for the company) in exchange for a pretending to be his fiance in hopes of luring the rancher’s estranged children back to the ranch, she jumps at the chance. This is her opportunity to have something that’s hers, that’s legit—even if the means to that end are sketchy.

That rancher’s son is Luc, aging professional hockey player who’s literally suffered too many blows to the head as his team’s enforcer, and is facing a potentially career-threatening, if not life-threatening, brain injury if he doesn’t stop playing. His father soon dies after Luc and his sister (who’s a main character in O’Keefe’s novel, Can’t Hurry Love) descend on the ranch, leaving him obligated to fulfill a series of conditions of his father’s will—and making him Tara Jean’s boss. 

More than anything, I was stuck by the character development of both Luc and Tara Jean.

The arms she held across her chest were clutched tight as if she were just barely holding herself together. Unwanted empathy twisted through Tara, who knew all too well what it felt like to have only yourself to protect you from the forces that wanted to tear you apart. Empathy. What garbage.

Tara Jean is hard. She’s determined. She wants something different from her future, and so even though I didn’t like her early on, I respected her and I rooted for her. Particularly heartbreaking to read—and quite emotional, which I didn’t expect—was Tara Jean’s disconnect from a physical and emotional connection to both herself and others. 

She leaned over slightly and arranged things to optimum advantage, her fingers cold on her skin. Impersonal. Considering how disconnected she felt from her body, she might as well be arranging fruit.

She’s a very attractive woman, one that turns heads in a big-haired Texas way, but she’s completely detached from herself. 

A million years ago, men and the way they could make her feel were her favorite candy. The best kind of sweetness. But no longer. That woman was gone. Never to be seen again. She was stronger than desire. Tougher than want. She wouldn’t be brought down by a man again. Never. Again.

Obviously, this is a romance, so that detachment changes when she meets Luc, but it’s not a wham-bam sudden transformation (which would have been a deal-breaker for me, since it would have been incongruous with Tara Jean’s character). Rather, while they are most certainly attracted to one another (again, this is a Big R Romance), Tara Jean keeps forcing her walls up, as she’s determined to put all of her energy toward making something of the leather business.

Luc shares this same sort of focus, but his is directed wholly toward hockey, and getting back on the ice so he can do the thing that defines him. The scenes from his point-of-view were as heart-wrenching as those from Tara Jean’s, because he literally does not know how to be without hockey. 

His job on the ice was so clear. The expectations were simple. Puck in net. Manipulate the forces against him. Stay three steps ahead of everyone. Out here—in the real world—things were too damn messy.

Y’all probably know that I’m a huge sports fan, and because of that, I often find portrayals of athletes in novels—especially those aimed at a female audience—incredibly frustrating and unrealistic (some of the lowest ratings I’ve given to books have been because of the ridiculous depiction of athletes). This was not a problem in Can’t Buy Me Love, with the exception of the Dallas Mavericks being a hockey team and a reference to hockey quarters (as opposed to periods).

Luc’s single-minded in a way that’s very typical, and his intense grief—yes, grief—over the potential loss of hockey in his life is absolutely palpable. He’s willing to literally risk his life to play hockey (the condition Luc has is very common in high level sports), and I totally got why, which made this a particularly dark read at times.  

Luc took a swig of beer, as if challenging Billy’s assessment. As if to say fuck you and fuck Tara. Fuck everyone else I need to need me. He resisted as long as he could, his hands gripping the counter as if there were one of those cartoon gale-force winds working against him, threatening to suck him right back out to Tara. “Damnit.” He pushed the beer over to Billy and followed Tara out the door.

He and Tara Jean are an unlikely match. O’Keefe created fantastic tension between these two, as they really are all wrong for each other on paper. Neither is really in a place to open themselves up to another person, since they don’t really have their respective acts together at all. And, yet, it works. 

Ruby patted Tara’s hand and Tara looked down at Ruby’s dark fingers, her blunt nails. She barely felt it. It was as if her skin was dead and had been for years. She heard fire victims were like that. They couldn’t feel anything through the scar tissue. Her past had built up enough scar tissue to keep every sensation at bay. Except for Luc. She felt him. Which was disturbing.

I think what struck me most is that even though Can’t Buy Me Love has a happy ending, I never felt like all of Tara Jean and Luc’s problems would be solved because they’ve found OMIGOD TRUE LOVE. I knew that their relationship would take work moving forward, but I also knew that they had the beginnings of something that would give them the support they needed to make a future for themselves, both as individuals and together. 

My biggest frustration was the introduction of a sub-plot related to Tara Jean’s past.

For me, I didn’t need that conflict. Yes, I know in Big R Romance there needs to be a Very Difficult Conflict, but there was enough internal conflict for both characters, as well as the very real threat to Luc’s physical well-being, that there was sufficient conflict for both of these characters to have work quite hard for their happy ending. Yes, this made for a dramatic ending, but a softer, more gentle ending would have sufficed for these two. 

My other big issue with Can’t Buy Me Love has nothing to do with the actual book—it’s the aforementioned packaging and marketing of the novel. The cover, the blurb and even the trailer would lead an unsuspecting reader to think this is a light, cute romance, and it’s quite far from that. I really thought it was an excellent example of the broad possibilities of what romance writing can be, and was excited about that, because I haven’t read a traditionally-structured romance that challenged me like Can’t Buy Me Love did. But, if I’d been hoping for what was the presentation promised, I would have been quite frustrated, because there’s a lot of darkness in Tara Jean and Luc’s story.

In a lot of ways, I can envision Can’t Buy Me Love easily repackaged with a different cover (and maybe a notso** happy ending, natch) and being appealing as “Edgy Women’s Fiction.”

(No, I am not really sure what that is, but I’ve seen that verbiage a lot lately.) There are a lot of layers to this gritty love story, and it’s as much about each character’s personal journey toward defining a new future for themselves as it is about the path toward sharing a future together. 

I know I’ve made this sound like a downer of a Big R Romance, and that wouldn’t be at all fair to this unique novel. While it’s definitely got a lot of edginess to it, and the characters are difficult, frustrating, human people, there’s also endearing humor peppered throughout to soften this emotional story. 

“I can’t say I like the man,” Ruby whispered, as if Luc might hear her from a hundred yards away, “but I love watching him run away.”

“You dirty bird,” Tara laughed, and Ruby smiled.

“I’m old, not dead. Here.” She handed Tara the mail. 

FNL Character Rating: I know Tara Jean Sweet was inspired by Tyra, but I sure see a lot of her sister, Mindi Riggins, in this character.  

{Buy Can’t Buy Me Love at Amazon | Book Depository | BN | iBooks}

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*A girl’s got to have priciples.

**TMJessica Darling

Disclosure: Received for review from the publisher via NetGalley.

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