The Incomparable Freddie Mercury sang about a "Crazy Little Thing Called Love" many years ago, and it's one of my favorite Queen songs/videos. While no one in Molly O'Keefe's Crazy Thing Called Love is in black leather and a ripped white T, this song was my mental background music throughout the book. Molly O'Keefe is a new-to-me author so I wasn't sure what to expect despite a lot of positive buzz on Twitter recently after she won a RITA for this very book. Now, I'm very glad I pulled it from the teetery-tottery mess that is my TBR mountain. However, I wasn't prepared for the emotional impact her writing and this book would have on me.
Crazy Thing Called Love is a book that I wouldn't normally gravitate to for several reasons. It's contemporary romance while my poison of choice runs mainly to historicals although that choice seems to be transitioning presently. The reunited lover theme is one which I tend to avoid because usually the reasons for the initial break-up of the lovers seem, well, stupid to me. (I did say, "usually.") Plus, I've shied away from show-biz romance characters in the past because being in front of a camera or on stage or performing in front of a huge audience isn't something I easily identify with. Then there's my unreasonable avoidance for heroes in any kind of sports field just ...because. (There's nothing reasonable about "unreasonable.") So with four strikes against it before I even read the first page, I was so sure this book wasn't for me. What. An. Idiot. Picture this, if you will. I started this book grudgingly, arms crossed (figuratively) and scowling ferociously with a deplorably childish "I-double-dog-dare-you,-Ms. O'Keefe,-to-make-me-like-one-scintilla-of-this-book" attitude. Somewhere along Chapter 2, I realized my figurative arms weren't crossed any more, and though I'm not certain exactly when my scowl disappeared, I think it was around the time Billy ambushed Maddy in her office in Chapter 4.
Maddy is a complex character. Initially, she wasn't easy for me to like and/or cheer for. Maddy is a rising star as host of a local morning television show called AM Dallas which she plans to use as a springboard to network TV, specifically the Today show. Her mantra really is "What would Matt Lauer do?" Maddy is very good at her job, she's worked very hard to erase all vestiges of her poor working class Pittsburgh background and the fact that she was ever married to hockey star Billy Wilkins. To boost ratings, the producer of her show has decided to makeover the bad boy of hockey on television, and Maddy will be the one to hold his hand throughout the process.
At first, it's only physical changes Billy notices when he stumbles across Maddy on AM Dallas:
"Parts of the girl he'd known were missing - the wild curly hair, those full womanly hips that she'd despaired of and he'd adored with unholy love. She'd gotten her teeth fixed and changed her name." (p. 20)
But there are other changes, too, as Billy soon discovers. Outwardly she's polished, cool, calm, unflappable in her designer clothes. This Madelyn with a degree in journalism, who threw herself body and soul into work because work "pulled her from the black hole divorce had sent her into" and gave her a feeling of self worth she never had while married to Billy, is a Phoenix risen from the ashes. Madelyn wears her "indifference like a suit of armor", her anger and hurt reined in and controlled on a very tight, very short leash. Maddy would have screamed at him, thrown plates at him, attacked him with her nails, but Madelyn does none of these things at their first meeting. Billy thinks she looks a little "stupid" with a "vapid empty smile on her face", "like she barely gave a shit", pretty but with a cultivated air of "certain emptiness." Madelyn is, in fact, a stranger to him.
In the fourteen years since Billy and Maddy divorced, Billy's career soared high but now seems to be crashing and burning. Billy has enjoyed many career highs: second round NHL draft pick, Olympic silver and gold as well as several Stanley Cup playoffs. Now he mostly warms the bench for the "second-rate team he'd been traded to." It's not so much a lack of skill that keeps him off the ice, but more the fact that Billy is, well, a self-admitted "asshole."
"Being an asshole was his way of life: it was why hockey teams had been paying his way for over sixteen years. The sport need assholes and Billy was the best. Used to be anyway.
Until he landed in Dallas, with a coach who preached respect and integrity." (p. 10)
Yep, that respect and integrity thing will really wreck a career. Billy has a very short fuse, relishes each and every chance to "drop gloves" on the ice, and cannot reconcile the violent game he's played for years with a troubling (to him) trend for a kinder, gentler game. He doesn't care if he's suspended, sees no worth in anger management counseling, and, in fact, "doesn't care about what was going to happen" after any of the fights "[b]ecause for guys like Billy Wilkins, there would always be another fight."
Billy's coach fought to keep him when the General Manager wanted to trade him. Coach Hornsby wanted this "aging enforcer" because Billy is a natural leader and has a wealth of experience that would benefit the young team, but on the ice Billy fights, shoots his mouth off, and make everybody angry. Hence, the bench. Billy has one year left on his contract, and it's looking like bench warmer will be the most he can look forward to. A smart savvy player whose NHL career started with a bang will end on a whimper unless he "grows up" and learns to show young players how to come back from a deficit by "using his brain" instead of his fists.
Billy's personal life isn't much better, especially since he caught a glimpse of Maddy a few months ago.
"She was famous, his Maddy. Accomplished and respected and more beautiful than he had words for.
And she'd taken one look at his ugly mug and run away. Left him in the hallway, feeling the shame of the past like fire over his skin.
As a rule Billy didn't believe in fate, but having her come back into his life when it was at its very darkest, that seemed important. Like something he shouldn't ignore.
Something he didn't want to ignore." (pp. 19-20)
After he sees her on TV, he tries to contact her through the studio numerous times, but she ignores every message. It was painful to watch her on AM Dallas, so he stopped and started pretending he'd never run into her months before. But his life "just got darker", and "he was alone." As he says, the "down to his gut" type of alone. Maddy "smothered the worst of his instincts". She reminds him "he used to be a better man. That he used to want to be better." Coach Hornsby had asked him what he cared about, and for Billy the answer is..."[n]othing, he realized; and he hadn't for a long time."
Fourteen years ago he was intoxicated at invitations to the sanctum sanctorum by his hockey heroes, admittance to exclusive (though seedy) clubs, and star treatment out of respect for his abilities was a heady concoction that blinded him to the promises he'd made to Maddy. A promise to be a family. He'd "smashed it under "heavy, callous heels." Now, Billy has one chance to make it right, and if Maddy needs to humiliate him on TV with a makeover, he feels he owes it to her. This "Billy Wilkes makeover project" for AM Dallas is his ticket, and he intends to grab it with both hands, because no matter the venue, the past has come knocking at his door "[d]ressed up like a second chance."
Crazy Thing Called Love worked very well for me because I believed the conflicts that separated Billy and Maddy years ago were authentic and the resolution was believable. Both characters have their problems - Billy's anger issues, Maddy so closed off emotionally - but the well-placed flashbacks and the way they completed the present day story for this couple brought me to tears a couple of times. Then there's Becky. Oh my heart hurt so for this girl, and I loved how she and "Good Time" Charlie (that's what I came to call him because he's just so damned cheerful and resilient) worked in pulling Maddy and Billy out of themselves to see how they could refashion a future that included these two children. I loved Billy's heartfelt apology for treating Maddy's love as an "afterthought", and though Maddy claims it doesn't matter anymore, it's then that she really begins to give up that "old madness." Maddy may appear "cool as a cucumber" but she was an internal emotional wreck inside from renewed involvement with the man who is "part little boy, part prison escapee." How this couple bridge a gap of fourteen years' separation and grasp their second chance with both hands in hopes of a more fulfilling relationship, one that offers equal support for both partners, is not easy to read about at times. But all the obstacles and pitfalls are handled deftly and realistically. The reasons for their separation are justified and real. I came to care deeply what happened to Maddy, Billy, Becky, and Charlie, and unashamedly shed a few tears. Ms. O'Keefe writes with emotion and humor and, at times, such beautiful imagery that I was both hooked immediately and ashamed I had left this book in the TBR stack so long.
I began this book with a chip on my shoulder, but the chip got knocked off pretty quickly. The only thing I'm sure of after reading Crazy Thing Called Love is an overpowering need to read more Molly O'Keefe books.