In The Crucible (1953), Arthur Miller’s “wild child,” Abigail Williams, says to her tormented, married lover, John Proctor, “A wild thing may say wild things. But not so wild, I think … I have seen you … burning in your loneliness.” In 1966, The Troggs sang, “Wild thing, you make my heart sing … Wild thing, I think I love you.” In those two most unlike and unconnected quotations, Miss Bates stands before Molly O’Keefe’s Wild Child with a conflicted response/recommendation/critique. See? Conflicted. Because Wild Child is very well written, with figurative language that zings for reader attention, honest, raw dialogue, and love scenes that are sexy and shaming. If this is to your taste, Wild Child may be a compelling ride of a read; it is tightly written and character-driven and will remind you of Jennifer Crusie’s Welcome To Temptation. To Miss Bates, it remains a novel she struggled with. It is, picking our signals from Miller and The Troggs, about the consequences of a life lived on the edge, loneliness, and love. Maybe the exercise of writing about it will help Miss B. reach a balanced, steady view?
“Wild child” free-spirit heroine Monica Appleby meets golden-good-boy hero Jackson Davies … except she’s not “wild” any more and “wild” is all he wants to be. On the basis of this premise, O’Keefe writes another signature romance novel where bad girl re-makes herself into a cleaner, stronger, better version and good boy takes a walk on the wild side. At cross purposes in their lives’ paths, at odds with themselves, these two figures, who are not ready for love or commitment, fall in love … most unconvincingly. Miss Bates loved O’Keefe’s writing, highlighted many bits and pieces of its skill and smoothness, but the romance, the love these two feel and want by the end, Miss B. just can’t see it, can’t see their future, their happiness, or their life together. This was one of several problematic elements in O’Keefe’s romance narrative.
Jackson Davis, golden-boy mayor of Bishop, Arkansas, pop. 4 200, knows his town is ” … dying. Slowly from a financial wound Jackson didn’t know how to fix. And Jackson took a lot of pride in being able to fix anything.” From this opening, O’Keefe’s narrative showed promise: the earnest hero working to bring his town back to life. A chance viewing of Good Morning, America gives him that opportunity in the form of a contest. Maybream cookies and crackers is looking to bring jobs back to America by opening a factory in a depressed American town. The only caveat is that the town has to prove its worth in a contest, vying with other small towns for wholesomeness, work ethic, family values … oh, and a factory viable for retrofitting.
Into his depressed-but-not-down town walks Monica Appleby and takes Jackson’s body and mind by storm with “her black-haired, purple-eyed beauty … diamond bright but lined in smoke and sin.” Golden-mayor-boy can’t resist the siren’s call, “Something about Monica managed to put a spotlight on every single wrong and dirty thing he’d abstained from in the last seven years.” Jackson gave up law school to take care of his baby sister, Gwen, when his parents were killed seven years ago. Since then, all he’s done is take care of others: his sister, his town, his friends. He’s just that kind of perfect, a golden-boy, a Hubble. Monica, reality-TV-star-turned-author with her revealing memoir, Wild Child, doesn’t do slut any more. She’s broken, saddened, and vulnerable after the death of her best friend and in Bishop to grapple with some childhood ghosts: to write the story of how her abused, down-and-out mother, with whom she shares a volatile relationship, shot her father 16 years ago to save herself and Monica.
Miss Bates’ ticker beat faster when she read this opening. It sent her scrabbling to pull out her tattered copy of Pamela Regis’ A Natural History of the Romance Novel. Specifically, Miss Bates looked to the following, “The scene or scenes defining the society establishes the status quo which the heroine and hero must confront in their attempt to court and marry and which, by their union, they symbolically remake” (31). Enfin, a romance novel, thought Miss Bates, that tackles the dying American town, that “remakes,” redeems, bolsters the decrepit homes, renews with a new sense of purpose, with jobs and hope coupled (yes, pun) with the courting and celebratory union of our hero and heroine.
A romance novel that offers more than a convenient billionaire for our heroine, looks to economic realities and yet brings hope to them. Um, no. Instead, O’Keefe gives us a quietist perspective on the town’s renewal. Instead of courting, there’s a lot of sexy times. Instead of a union that promises a new life for the town, there’s abandonment, disguised as freedom from responsibility and duty’s shackles. Nevertheless, the vision is a conservative one: the individual is not responsible for his community, just himself and whatever sunset he rides into. As Brody, Jackson’s friend says, “You can’t fix everything. Some things just are.” Wild Child does not live up to its promise: the town is not renewed, the wedding dance of reconciliation and renewal of life is supplanted by some kind of “on the road” fantasy. Miss Bates was disappointed: she wanted to see some kind of commitment to the collective, some integration of our couple’s life with the resurrection of a moribund community.
What of our hero and heroine? If society’s renewal is left by the wayside, not brought to fruition, then can we put our hope on Jackson and Monica? No. Jackson is all immature, martyred annoyance. He yearns to be a bad-boy, but wants everyone’s approval, to be recognized as a great guy. Miss Bates loved Monica, the former wild-child, for her honest revelations, soft heart, intelligence, emotional vulnerability, and endearing self-deprecating humour, witness, “Rocker goth chick is a hard look to carry when you’re 30” and “In her last book, Wild Child, she’d just opened a vein and bled all over.” O’Keefe is really good at writing shame. Monica and Jackson are ashamed: Monica of her past; Jackson, of what he hasn’t been able to do for his town, or his problematic, teen-aged sister.
Speaking of shame, no one burns up with it more than secondary character, Shelby Monroe, art teacher and leader of a successful art camp for children, someone who is adored, beloved, respected, and admired in Bishop. Yet, like all sex-starved spinsters everywhere, she gives herself to a smarmy, worthless man, Dean, the owner of the potential cookie factory, on the side of the road because she was ashamed of being a 32-year-old spinster. Really. What is this? Blanche Dubois? Maybe Miss Bates is over-sensitive about this character’s portrayal and maybe you should read the novel yourself before you take her word for it here, but the problem with the novel goes beyond Shelby-spinster-goes-over-to-the-dark-oops-wild-side. The problem is in a novel that is conflicted in its explicit amorous scenes, even while imbuing most of them with a sense of shame. Shelby’s. Monica’s. Jackson’s.
O’Keefe’s Wild Child wags a finger, don’t have sex with someone unless: you know him, love him, or you will live with the shame of it. The sentiment is fine and good if Jackson were worthy of Monica’s wonderfulness. The upshot seems to be, however, that Monica’s life has to be redeemed by the golden-boy … Shelby’s can’t be until her walk-on-the-wild-side is tamed by remorse and she stops enjoying herself. For Monica, the suggestion is akin to The Troggs’ flip side to “Wild Thing:” “Lost Girl” (yes, folks, Miss Bates does make good use of Wikipedia). Monica’s a “lost girl” until she, like Dickinson wrote so many years ago in “Wild Nights, “moor[s] in” Jackson, in her love for him. Monica thinks, “Men look at me and see the woman who had sex with rock stars. But it wasn’t sexy. Or exciting. It was sad, and needy. Scary sometimes.” But Jackson is not all golden-boy goodness and Monica knows it, “I see you, she thought. All the parts you hide behind that smile. And they’re not all pretty.” Yet, Monica sees Jackson’s worth to her, her love for him frees her, helps her be open and loving; she lets herself grow up, own herself. When she says, “Jackson was her conquistador, the first foreign man on all her untouched shores and he didn’t even know it,” it is because she’s brought herself to this point. Jackson? Jackson, in his boyish, charming immaturity, is only the catalyst. As for Jackson, isolated in his Hubble-good-looks-and-good-deeds, the Boy Scout who looks good in the uniform, at least has the guts to admit, “His loneliness was a radio signal bouncing off nothing .. what was wrong with him … the idea of never being enough.” Ah, self-pity. And somehow, his honesty is supposed to redeem him. In the end, it seemed to be enough for Monica, but not Miss Bates.
Miss Bates urges you to read Wild Child for the great writing and “wild child,” Monica, but the niggling conservatism, the quietism, more insidious undercurrents in this romance novel, she can say no more to than “almost pretty,” Northanger Abbey.
O’Keefe’s Wild Child, published by Bantam Dell, has been available since October 29th in the usual places and formats. Miss Bates is grateful to the publisher for an e-ARC, via Netgalley, in exchange for this honest review.
One of the most frustrating experiences in reading romance fiction is an incompatible hero and heroine, especially when one of the two is so much less likeable, less deserving than the other. What incompatible couples have you read lately, or that you can recall from reading romance fiction? And, if you’ve read Wild Child, please weigh in and tell Miss Bates your thoughts.