Miss Bates noted, since reading Molly O’Keefe’s first Boys of Bishop contemporary romance, Wild Child, that her second, Never Been Kissed, again builds a romance around headline news. Characters are besieged by the media, or embroiled in it, seeking, or avoiding notoriety, or manipulating it to gain their ends. This makes for an interesting vacillation between the public world of the camera’s flash and news report and the private world where characters work out their varied, complex relationships with lovers and family. It reminds us how easily, in this age of voracious media, the private becomes public, how it encroaches, and what a challenge it is to stay. This theme adds depth to O’Keefe’s story, depth that she’s always had in spades anyway, if Miss Bates’ last O’Keefe review is anything to go by. If you read one historical romance this year, it should be O’Keefe’s Western-set, post-bellum Seduced. Though years and worlds away, Never Been Kissed confronts similar questions of how to move on from the past, of self-worth and purpose, of negotiating a relationship with odds stacked against it, of the heart’s conflicts, of what it means to be American. Never Been Kissed is the story of the romance between taciturn ex-Marine-bodyguard, Brody Baxter, and rich-girl do-gooder, Ashley Montgomery, who, ten years ago, at seventeen, made a pass at him when he worked as a bodyguard for her family. He rebuffed her, quit his job, but never forgot her … nor she him. Extraordinary circumstances bring them together again, but everyday, private life, when they retreat to Brody’s hometown of Bishop, Arkansas, will make, or break their fragile love.
Never Been Kissed has a fabulous opening, an exciting from-the-headlines situation re-uniting heroine and hero. At the same time, it introduces two different, but equally damaged families. Harrison Montgomery seeks their family’s former bodyguard’s, Brody Baxter’s, help in retrieving his sister, Ashley, from the Somali pirates who’ve kidnapped her. The Montgomerys sound, to Miss Bates at least, like fictional Kennedys, powerful, charismatic, scandal-ridden, and single-minded in their political pursuits. They’re led by ruthless and emotionally icy matriarch, Patty Montgomery, who orchestrates political moves like a grand-master. Harrison seems like a decent guy, genuinely concerned and loving his sister, but caught up in the political campaign he’s waging for a Congress seat. Brody’s response to getting Ashley out is immediate. He rescues her, brings her home to NYC, and then takes her to Bishop, Arkansas, his hometown, when she needs a place to heal from injuries to soul and body away from the public eye. Truth is, however, that if Brody didn’t take care of her, her family couldn’t, or wouldn’t … certainly not the Ice Queen Patty, who treats Brody abominably. Ashley is angry with her mother over this and wonders, “It wasn’t a race thing, it was a privilege thing. Or maybe it was both.”
An ex-Marine-turned-bodyguard, “His mother had been Filipino, his father black,” and a privileged, in-the-public-eye white girl, a girl who volunteered in an African refugee camp (to make up for the guilt she feels for her family’s wrongs) and was kidnapped by pirates: a situation ripe for the media’s flashbulbs and frantic questions. Brody may be uncommunicative and gruff, but he never leaves Ashley’s side: she’s his mission, his to protect, and love, though it takes him longer to realize the love than it does Ashley and the reader. Ashley is funny, loving, smart, and giving, making up for her family’s coldness and mercenary exploitation of others. At seventeen, she threw herself at Brody, who, honourable to the end, rebuffed her. She never recovered. She’s guilty-ridden because she caused his firing (her mother never told her he’d quit) and still very much in love with him. Who wouldn’t be? Big, handsome, protective, generous, and yet, sad and vulnerable too, lonely, or as Ashley says, “he looked like what he needed most in this world was a hug.” The reasons for Brody’s silent suffering are found in Bishop, Arkansas, and his adoptive family: Ed, his father; and brother, Sean. His mother, Linda, whom everybody loved, died of cancer; as the glue that held them together, she is greatly missed. They grieve her still and, with stoic, male, silent suffering, don’t know how to be a family without her.
Ashley may be weak and injured from her ordeal, but she’s emotionally stronger than Brody. She never allows her unloving family to keep her from loving fiercely. This is how she loves Brody and, once she gets to know them, his family as well. The vulnerable one is Brody; as Ashley says, “Something somewhere in Brody was broken.” Through the years, fear and guilt have silenced Brody’s heart; he silenced it by being afraid that he didn’t belong, wasn’t loved, trying always so hard to be good and do the right thing. When he was six and his mother, Linda, was ill from her pregnancy with Sean, Ed, his father, was so terrified of losing her that he didn’t show the love he ought to to Brody. Ed did and does love him; he was and is proud of him. Now old and ill, Ed needs to tell Brody, show him. Sean’s heart is, on the other hand, open; he’s not afraid to be vulnerable, to show Bordy how much he loves him. He hero-worships Brody. He was a fragile kid and, ever the protector, Brody fought all his battles; now, Brody showers him with money, helping him to hold on to the family bar in a depressed town. But he never lets Sean too close. Brody won’t let anyone in because he’s terrified of losing everyone he loves. Ashley has her work cut out for her. Sean relentlessly loves him. Ed calls him “my son.” Brody is besieged by love: will he let his emotional walls down, or run away, as he always has?
O’Keefe has said, in her recent work, she’s interested in writing a difficult heroine, one not easy to like. This is still true of the heroine of Seduced, who has a great line about being the hottest of the hothouse flowers. O’Keefe broke her difficult heroine run in Ashley Montgomery. She’s wonderful, not a pushover, sharp-tongued, which is Miss Bates’ favourite quality in a heroine, but so likable, loveable really. She has to be because the emotional fragility all lies in Brody. She has to be willing to tell him that she loves him: she has to be emotionally honest because Brody is scared and closed-up. Miss Bates loved it when Ashley said, ” … it was a relentlessly bad instinct to love this man, but it was also equally impossible not to.” Because he’s wonderful too; he just doesn’t know it. How perfectly has Ashley understood Brody? Completely. He is a man who deserves love, craves it, but, like his mom said, doesn’t know how to let people love him. This is great characterization. It’s a very difficult thing to left yourself be loved … we are so used to the notion of the marketplace, to exchange, and barter … that we monetize something whose essence is that it’s freely given, without any expectation of return. However, O’Keefe does something with Ashley that is equally important and perceptive. She has Ashley let Brody go because, “She might love him, but she was under no illusion that she could change him. He was going to have to do that on his own.” So important. So true.
How does O’Keefe bring this about? There they are, her lovers, in Bishop, Arkansas: Ashley with her giving heart, loving Brody, changing the town and his family, planting gardens in all kinds of ways. And Brody, Ashley’s lover, not for a moment believing he deserves her, that he can spend his life with her. But, for now, lovers. Brody works alongside Sean, helps Ed, but he always has his eye on the horizon, moving away, going to the next job. At this point, the narrative loses steam and Miss Bates was afraid, very afraid that small-town cutesy was going to show up … but it didn’t. Instead, the great wave of media attention, the kind that exploits vulnerability, creates scandal, breaks over them. Brody and Ashley are torn apart, tread water, navigate dangerous seas, emotionally and publicly … again. The HEA, in the public light and private sphere, is near-perfect … foiled only by the epilogue! Miss Bates is not a great fan of the epilogue, but, in this case, it was perfect.
O’Keefe has penned a romance about two principled, honourable people: their capacity for love and happiness is evident, but the narrative is never tedious, or obvious. The novel’s virtues are many. O’Keefe subdued her writing: usually sharp, full of the pith of sarcasm and irony, with startling metaphors, for something gentler, humorous and witty as always, but more in keeping with the sheer decency, the goodness, of her hero and heroine. She placed her couple in a community that they will work towards reviving and renewing. O’Keefe ends her romance with the idea that laying roots is important. Ten years ago, Ashley and Brody began their adult lives with a sense of mission and purpose: he joined the Marines; she went to Africa. Now, they bring that same sense of mission to Bishop, from the global to the local, which needs them as much as they need a place to put down roots, build a home, a marriage, and have children. The reader knows that Ashley and Brody will do the work of repairing a broken world because they’re starting from a position of love and wholeness. They’ve survived the storm and will be better together than apart. Miss Bates urges you to read this wonderful romance novel. In it, Miss Bates found evidence that “there is no charm equal to tenderness of heart,” Emma.
Molly O’Keefe’s Never Been Kissed is published by Bantam Books. It has been available, in e-book and print, since July 1st, at the usual vendors. Miss Bates is grateful to Bantam Books for an e-ARC, via Netgalley, in expectation of review.
Who were the last honourable hero and heroine that you read? What struck you about them?