The Sly Subversiveness of Molly O'Keefe's Wild Child
It's no secret that Molly O'Keefe's novels are my favorites in the very crowded contemporary romance genre. Her books, which on their surface follow the norms of romance novels (since that's what they are), are brilliantly subversive. All of the novels I've read by this author riff on romance archetypes and conventions in a deliciously satisfying manner. Molly's latest, Wild Child, is no different.
Wild Child focuses on Monica Appleby, famous reality television teen wild child, who wrote a bestselling tell-all memoir of her raucous and destructive formative years. She's alone, her closest friend having recently died and not having a relationship with her mother, and has returned to the town of Bishop, Arkansas to write her follow-up book, this time chronicling the events of her parents' tumultuous relationship and her father's subsequent death. Monica is all hard edges and walls, unwilling to make even casual connections with anyone.
Monica ignored Jackson as he slid into the booth across from her. First the Cracker dude and now Jackson. Good Lord, weren’t the headphones a giveaway? Did she need to make a Do Not Disturb sign? This was why she so rarely went to coffee shops to work, preferring her own company and her own music.
The mayor of Bishop is Jackson Davies, who dropped out of law school and returned to his hard-luck hometown to raise his younger sister, Gwen, after their parents were killed in a car accident. Jackson never wanted to make Bishop his home; the town is dying, with an empty factory gathering dust and many of the town's residents struggling in the blighted economy. His father was mayor of Bishop as well, and his goal at the town's leader is the turn the economy around, make sure his sister is safely away at college and then get out of town.
Jackson has a plan that he thinks might just work: He's enters Bishop into a nationwide contest to attract a cookie company to their abandoned factory and now all he and the rest of the citizens of Bishop have to do is make their little town as appealing as possible to both the cookie company and the television network that's broadcasting the contest. The presence of Bishop's infamous "Wild Child," Monica, is certainly not not going to help the town's chances.
This being a romance novel, a spark kindles between Jackson and Monica. At the hands of many writers, the path toward a happily-ever-after ending for Jackson and Monica would be fairly predictable. However--as I've come to expect from Molly's novels--the traditional romance twists and turns surprised me every step of the way.
Friends are mirrors held up to remind us of who we really are, she thought. And she felt the lack, the terrible hole in her life, in a fresh and disturbing way. Without Jenna reminding her who she really was, she was in danger of losing herself to everyone’s expectations. To everyone’s opinion of her. But this man with his beautiful eyes and his hair and his fingers—he wanted to know her. And that was enough. Enough to make her unlock some of her secrets. To let down her guard to be more … herself.
Small town romances are a dime a dozen (and I say that not to diminish anyone who reads, writes or enjoys them) , but much of the time they simply don't work for me. The towns are too quaint, too charming, too perfect for me to believe as a person who's from an actual small town. They need more hard edges, because that's a reality. The world is an imperfect place, so when settings are too perfect, it's hard for me to believe in a story--give me some rough edges.
What I appreciated about Bishop as Wild Child's setting is that it's got a core of realism: There's hardship, stress and conflict alongside the know-everyone charm.
Like Bishop, both Monica and Jackson have their own hard edges. Monica's past, all revealed in the black and white of her memoir, defines her, even though her wild days are far behind her. Her current decisions are driven by a desire to not be the person she was previously, and it's made her very carefully constructed--something Jackson understands.
She said it as if she were flirting, but he knew when Monica Appleby was flirting; he’d been the recipient of those sideways glances, the blush on her cheeks, the nervous dance of her fingers over her glass. This wasn’t that. This seemed … practiced. Careful. Brittle. And he realized, watching her, how skilled she was at letting people think they were getting close while in reality she was keeping them at arm’s length. Something prickly ran up his neck, an awareness.
I do that, too.
Or maybe he was just experiencing some beer wisdom. Or maybe he just wanted that connection he felt to her to mean something. To mean he was special.
This is one of the key rubs in Wild Child: Monic and Jackson are both effectively playing a part and they see this in one another, that each is play-acting at who they are. This is a theme that really resonates with me and it's extremely well-executed in this novel. The idea of "this person finally sees the real me" is not a new one in romance, but in Wild Child it felt different, more authentic, like that trope was being pushed beyond "trope" into something fresh.
This is because it's not that simple in the case of Jackson and Monica--both need to come to terms with seeing their real selves, for themselves. And that's a big deal. At one point, Monica reveals that she's a writer because she's a "truth teller" and I think that's an apt metaphor for the evolution of Monica and Jackson's relationship.
With him, she’d been herself. As much as she was ever herself in the company of other people. And she found herself terrified by the honesty of the moment, of the honesty he seemed to require of her right now.
(If you're looking for other reads examining the constructed social identities and personal truth, check out You Look Different in Real Life by Jennifer Castle [YA] and More Like Her by Liza Palmer [adult fiction].)
The prose takes an interesting direction, it's more sparse and staccato, and it works wonderfully with the cadence of the novel and reflects that characters.
While this isn't my favorite story of Molly's novels (that would be Crazy Thing Called Love, though I liked this one so, so much as well), the writing in Wild Child is my favorite of her books.
He didn’t say anything, he just watched her without judgment. Another gift he seemed to give her without realizing how valuable it was.
I really like this subtle shift in style, and I hope it continues for the rest of the series--it's yet another reason that Molly's books stand out. Sometimes third-person isn't as "voicey" as the first-person I tend to read. However, with Wild Child the point-of-view was irrelevant because the characters had such strong, clear perspectives which were reflected in the writing.
I'm always reluctant to label books as "feminist" or otherwise, because I don't feel that it's my place to tell anyone else what their personal feminism is.
WIth that said, I'd be remiss in not mentioning certain elements of Wild Child that satisfied the feminist reader in me.
At multiple points, Jackson and Monica's story looks like it's headed for traditional romance Tropelandia, and then it slyly subverts the very trope I anticipated. There's an important scene early on in Wild Child (chapter 11, if you're reading along at home) in which Jackson learns the truth about Monica's past (she spent her youth partying and having sex with lots and lots of men), his assumptions (prior to learning the truth about her past) and her revelation (Am I being vague enough? Too vague? So sorry!) say so much about not only these characters but the assumptions we make as readers. I fully expected this scene to play out in a way that I've seen so many times, and that's not what happened at all.
Most of us have read stories of the damaged person saved by True Love, the Magical Penis or some combination thereof, and while I supposed that's fun escapism, it's also rather tired and ignores the importance of self-determination and individual empowerment.
In Wild Child, Monica quite explicitly critiques this idea.
“Your magic penis didn’t save me, you jackass! I did, by being honest. Something I’m trying to do more of. And yes, the sex has a lot to do with it, but it’s not why I love you. I love you because you’re magic. You try so hard. You think of other people first. You don’t back down from a fight … except for when it’s on your own behalf. You’re the most caring and compassionate and selfless person I know, while at the same time being the most closed-off and selfish person I know. You’re a mess and I love that about you, because I’m a mess too. But I’m figuring things out. But—and you’d better get this through your thick skull—I am not something that needs to be fixed.”
If I were one to pump my fist in the air while reading (ahem), I would have at this point in the story. There's something so profoundly disempowering about the story arc of a character rescued by a literal or metaphorical Magical Penis. For a female character to not only consciously reject this, but to say it out loud to the love interest?
That's straight-up badassery right there.
Moments like this, which push the envelope of our expectations of romance fiction and subvert the traditional gendered paradigms are what make Molly's books so special for me. And, to be honest, what's ruined a lot of other books from the genre for me since I discovered her novels last year. (*shakes fist*)
Wild also features a number of secondary characters who are equally nuanced, including a teenage character who reads as an authentic teen girl and Jackson's close female friend, Shelby, whose complicated, uncomfortable entanglement is its own story (and I assume is setting the stage for her to star in one of the other books in this series). These characters make Monica and Jackson's story richer and lend a depth to the world-building (which is something contemporary fiction sometimes falters on). I know a couple of them are going to be in future books, and I'm looking forward to learning about what makes them tick.
My only complaints are minor. I wasn't completely sure Jackson was ready to be a fully functioning person (emotionally-speaking) by the end of this book, though he was on the right path. With that said, I'm not sure that he needed to be there at the end of the novel. In a lot of ways, he required far more growth than Monica, so perhaps that's not a complaint, but rather a warning to readers who want a complete emotional resolution. I do wish the plot with Monica's mother hasn't been so tidy, but that's a complaint I have in most books involving fractured family relationships, so take that with a grain of salt.
The back cover summary compares it to Susan Elizabeth Phillips and Rachel Gibson (I don't see either being accurate comparisons), but for me a better comparison would be Victoria Dahl, in terms of a messiness of relationships and overarching theme of individual empowerment through a female-positive lens, but with more story and character development (and quite a bit less sex). Romance readers will love how Molly's lovingly played with popular tropes and archetypes, while if you're not normally a romance reader, you may want to consider ignoring the cover and giving this one a try--there's enough family stickiness, intriguing secondary characters and subplots that Wild Child might just trick you into further exploring the genre.
When it comes down to it, if you're looking for an authentically complex* romance narrative with strong feminist leanings, read Wild Child.
Buy Wild Child at Amazon | Kobo | Powell's | Book Depository
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FNL Character Rating: A bizarro alternative universe in which Tyra Collette and Matt Saracen find true love in each others' arms.
* As opposed to the manufactured drama that's so in vogue at the moment.
Disclosure: Review copy provided by the publisher.