Miss Bates finally made her way to the third novel in Molly O’Keefe’s “Boys of Bishop” series, Between the Sheets. She reviewed the first one, Wild Child, and second, Never Been Kissed. The latter emerges as her favourite, but the beauty and pain of Between the Sheets remain with her. There was so much going on in the hero’s and heroine’s lives that while the relationship made sense … romance showed up too-little-too-late in a schmaltzy epilogue. The sheer daily nightmare of the heroine’s life detracted from the warm-and-fuzzies that romance readers expect, nay demand, ’cause damnit isn’t life hard enough that I have to confront it in my comfort corner? There were moments when Miss B. resented this novel: with its harsh realities and stubborn personalities. BUT, O’Keefe is writing some of the best in contemporary romance. Between the Sheets, like the two previous novels, is set up in the aftermath of a media debacle, Shelby Monroe’s media debacle, one we cringed over in Wild Child. Between the Sheets fills in the cracks of Shelby’s humiliation, hauls in her mother and memories of her father and closed-in, cool-as-a-cucumber spinster’s existence. Between the Sheets isn’t a picking-up-the-pieces story, it’s a darkest before the dawn tale … and the hero is an unlikely and dealing-with-his-own-crap knight, with his own vulnerabilities and burdens. O’Keefe’s novel grabs you like Fay Wray in Kong’s fist and tosses you around emotionally … you should read it. It is a spinster’s tale told by a master of the genre. 😉
” … she was flat out of grace.” [If you haven’t read the previous novels, what follows may contain spoilers. If you have, keep reading.] We met Shelby Monroe in Wild Child: she was the art teacher, the “good girl” rival to “wild child” Monica for the hero’s, Jackson’s, affections. But O’Keefe doesn’t do obvious and Jackson and Shelby early knew they were friends, only friends. Even then, there was a desperation to Shelby to break out of her goody-two-shoes mold. Like most controlled and gently loving spinsters, Shelby doesn’t know how to take a risk. Naturally cautious and circumspect, as spinster schoolteachers are wont to be, when Shelby breaks out, she goes overboard. A sexual adventure with a creepo resulted in humiliating footage of her on the ‘Net and fisticuffs breaking out on national television. A beloved art teacher, loyal friend, and kind soul to all in Bishop, Arkansas, Shelby’s life carries an abusive father, a mother suffering from Alzheimer’s and self-worth in subterranean regions. Shelby’s mother, Evie, is a haunting portrayal of dementia and may be the most powerful aspect of O’Keefe’s novel. Witnessing Evie’s decline are Shelby: so painfully close and in denial. Demoralized and exhausted, Shelby’s guilt over her father’s abuse of her mother and her deep bond with a formerly good, capable woman stalls her from placing her mother in care. But the truly fascinating witness to Evie’s cognitive degeneration is troubled student and neighbour, Casey Svenson, whose father, Wyatt, “Ty,” offers Shelby everything she’s ever wanted, love, support, friendship, commitment. Sadly, the only thing she’ll willing to take for herself is harsh sex. Ty understands Shelby’s need for sexual oblivion. He’s not broken, closed-off, or cold; he’s loving and ready for a relationship. All he’s ever wanted to do, at least for a start, is take Shelby to dinner. That is the novel’s caveat: not for a moment is there joy between these two. Desire, yes; friendship, definitely; love, absolutely. Shelby is so closed off, so conquered by guilt over, and love for, her mother, their bond so deep as they survived an abusive preacher father/husband that Shelby cannot let anyone in. Shelby and Ty lead their lives primarily as care-takers: yes, Shelby to her mother; but Ty as well, to his newly-found, troubled son, Casey and that defines them more than their relationship.
” ‘You want something I don’t have to give,’ she told him, her voice burning through her chest. ‘I think you do.’ ‘Why?’ ‘Faith, baby,’ he breathed over her lips. ‘I have faith.’ ” Therein lies the difference between Ty and Shelby. To the judgemental and undiscerning eye, he’s bad boy to her good girl, wild one to her Mary Sue, Harley to her Volvo. There is nothing in Ty’s life that makes it better than Shelby’s. His worthless, negligent parents died when he was a child; he was blessed in his caring loving grand-parents. But hormones raged and he ran with a bad crowd, hooked up with a bad woman. But he’s made his way back to a good life; with the example and memory of his grand-parents, he left the biker gangs behind. His past returns in the form of a ten-year-old son he only found out about when his former girlfriend went to jail. He’s in Bishop hoping that small-town life, a solid community, will help in raising his son. His doubts and fears concerning his ability to be a good father are utterly endearing and, of course, only mean that he is a good father.
One of the most interesting aspects to Ty’s characterization is a habit he got into as he left the gangs behind and wandered the States in search of the next bike shop, or carpentry job. Whatever town he was in, he would find a church with a good pastor and good people. He hoped that proximity and his commitment to Sunday presence would help him be good too. And he’s right. O’Keefe is not writing inspirational romance: she’s not interested in the strait-laced and rigid confines of that subgenre, but her inclusion of this theme is exactly what Miss Bates likes to see a romance do to acknowledge the place that religion has in many people’s lives. And, what she does to make the treatment even more sophisticated and interesting, she makes Shelby’s abusive father a man of God, a preacher with his own church. His is a classic portrait of the puritan code writ in a humorless, cruel, judgemental, and exploitative religious figure. O’Keefe’s two versions of religion point to the complex nature of religious commitment: its fundamentalist cruelties and its collective comforts. O’Keefe doesn’t choose sides; she shows us sides and makes her novel all that much better, more layered and thought-provoking. And in the lines above, that Ty speaks to Shelby, there is a world of meaning: faith in her and in her ability to overcome her past and the difficulties of the present to reach for what everyone, except she, knows she deserves. Shelby’s capitulation into faith and love comes too abruptly, maybe too easily, but Miss B. could’ve lived with the HFN because it’s nice to see a romance writer challenge this need-the-lines-in-the-sand-drawn-neatly-and-definitively spinster reader to “have faith” that the shadows and fog will dissipate and the sun of the HEA will shine.
Not every novel a romance writer offers her readers is perfect, but Molly O’Keefe has yet to break faith with Miss Bates. It may be a “broken hallelujah,” (thank you, Leonard) but it’s a hallelujah nonetheless. In Between the Sheets, Miss Bates found “a mind lively and at ease,” Emma.
Molly O’Keefe’s Between the Sheets is published by Bantam Dell (Random House Publishing) and has been available in paper and e-formats since July 29th.
Miss Bates is grateful to Bantam Dell for an e-ARC, via Netgalley, in order to consider the novel for review.
What have you read lately that challenged you?