Bantam / October 29, 2013/ $7.99 print & digital
Monica Appleby is a woman with a reputation. Once she was America’s teenage “Wild Child,” with her own reality TV show. Now she’s a successful author coming home to Bishop, Arkansas, to pen the juicy follow-up to her tell-all autobiography. Problem is, the hottest man in town wants her gone. Mayor Jackson Davies is trying to convince a cookie giant to move its headquarters to his crumbling community, and Monica’s presence is just too . . . unwholesome for business. But the desire in his eyes sends a very different message: Stay, at least for a while.
Jackson needs this cookie deal to go through. His town is dying and this may be its last shot. Monica is a distraction proving too sweet, too inviting—and completely beyond his control. With every kiss he can taste her loneliness, her regrets, and her longing. Soon their uncontrollable attraction is causing all kinds of drama. But when two lost hearts take a surprise detour onto the bumpy road of unexpected love, it can only lead someplace wonderful.
In the third chapter of Wild Child, Monica Appleby looks at Jackson Davies and thinks, “I see you. . . . All the parts you hid behind that smile. And they aren’t pretty.” Molly O’Keefe may assign the thought to her heroine, but the words could serve as well as an authorial declaration for this author who cuts away all the veneer to expose the messiness, the raw wounds, and the self-delusions that lie beneath the Prufrockian faces her characters craft to protect themselves.
She does this in Wild Child with minor characters, from the mother who uses her celebrity to create an identity, to the genius teen who hides her fear and loneliness behind the clothes and attitude of rebellious adolescent, to the schoolteacher hiding her passion and need to feel desired behind decorum, to the award-winning cook whose homey warmth disguises a wounded child who still exists inside her, to the golden boy CEO whose looks conceal his sleazeball ways. But the fullest and most painful exposure is reserved for the two protagonists who paradoxically become the instruments of torturous revelation and of healing and happiness for one another.
On the surface, Jackson and Monica appear to have nothing in common. Jackson is the child of loving parents; his roots are deep in Bishop, Arkansas, and in the Big House where generations of his family have lived. He is surrounded by people who care about him, and his work as a mayor struggling to save a small town from bankruptcy is meaningful. Monica, the only child of a woman who killed her husband, the father of her child, in self-defense and emotionally abandoned her daughter, grew up rootless with no concept of home. Her only close friend is dead, and Monica is struggling to distance herself from the wild child whom substance abuse, promiscuity, and the life of a rock-star groupie almost destroyed. Estranged from her mother, she is alone except for business associates. Her decision to write a book about her father’s death is a means of fighting her personal demons. Moreover, Jackson and Monica’s goals put them in conflict with one another. Jackson is committed to presenting Bishop as the perfect, wholesome small town in order to win America’s approval and the Maybream Crackers contract to refit Bishop’s closed okra-processing plant as their new factory. Monica is in Bishop to research the darkest scandal in Bishop’s history, a move that could threaten the town’s all-American, apple-pie image.
They recognize their differences. Jackson, whose youth was cut short by his parents’ deaths and responsibility for his eleven-year-old sister, sees Monica as “the human and stunningly gorgeous personification of everything he wanted and couldn’t have.” The rootless Monica, who has lived in houses but never known a home, looks at the place where Jackson’s family has lived and recognizes “the difference between a house and a home wasn’t anything you could point at; it was a feeling. A sense of a group of lives lived together in tandem and opposition, messy and sweet and complicated.” But they soon come to recognize that they are both lonely souls; it’s just that Jackson is alone while surrounded by people. It doesn’t matter that Monica wants to prove wrong people’s expectations of her as the paparazzi darling of the past and Jackson wants to prove right people’s expectations of him as the responsible caretaker. . Both of them have lost important connections to the people they really are because so much of their lives is controlled by dealing with others’ expectations of them.
They recognize themselves in each other. Monica observes Jackson’s body language when he lightly passes over her regrets about his parents’ deaths and knows that while his words and face say that their deaths are in the past, the tension in his body proclaims him a liar. Her response: “Amazing. . . . We have so much in common.” Jackson observes Monica and realizes “how skilled she was at letting people think they are getting close while in reality she was keeping them at arm’s length,” a quality he recognizes in himself.
Their instinctual understanding of how alike they are and the powerful sexual attraction they feel for one another creates an intimacy that both comforts and threatens. They can use their knowledge of one another connect and to wound with harsh truths. When Monica questions the value of Jackson’s plan to save the town, he accuses her of using the book about her father as an escape from current problems. Both are frightened by what is exposed in these moments. Jackson thinks, “She tampered with his locks, his rules, and distracted him from the plan. She tampered with him, opened up a side of himself he didn’t know.” Monica retreats from Jackson’s words:
“In the bar, he’d touched something awful, something scary and painful, and it obliterated her interior landscape, those things about herself that she had created and honed. Her indifference, her strength, her hard-won acceptance of her past, her parents—all of it. He just stirred up a dust storm of doubt and anger.”
O’Keefe is not a writer for those who hunger for a light-hearted story with a fairy tale ending. This is not to say that her stories are entirely lacking humor; she gives her readers moments that will evoke a smile, but her exposure of her characters’ all too human flaws may make some readers uncomfortable. And while O’Keefe writes romance, and the reader can trust her to provide a happy ending, her characters remain to the end flawed creatures on a journey that is “perfectly imperfect.”
Learn more or order a copy of Wild Child by Molly O'Keefe, available October 29, 2013:
Janga spent decades teaching literature and writing to groups ranging from twelve-year-olds to college students. She is currently a freelance writer, who sometimes writes about romance fiction, and an aspiring writer of contemporary romance, who sometimes thinks of writing an American historical romance. She can be found at her blog Just Janga and tweeting obscure bits about writers as @Janga724.