Prior to the Molly O’Keefe’s Summer Rain short-story, The Heart of It I had started and quit three of her novels despite hearing only love and adoration for them from trusted reviewers and twitter friends. As I read the opening chapters of Between the Sheets I finally realized why I had struggled with her books. O’Keefe doesn’t shy away from presenting her characters at their most unflattering right from the start. Some authors slowly unveil and reveal character flaws and struggles slowly, ensuring you are invested in the characters and in all the O’Keefe’s I had tried to read, the main characters don’t meet-cute, they meet-hate and behave in less than ideal ways. They are better people than they appear to be, but they dig deep holes with each other and the reader.
Between the Sheets is the third book in the Boys of Bishop series. The first book Wild Child has been sitting on my kindle since it first came available on NetGalley, abandoned after I read the first chapter and I only saw conflict ahead. Buoyed by my enjoyment of The Heart of It I was able to blaze through the conflict-heavy early chapters of Between the Sheets, till I was fully engaged with the characters, and their story. Once I got to know Shelby, Ty, Evie and Casey I couldn’t put the book down. While Between the Sheets alludes to events in Wild Child and has many characters in common, I didn't feel I missed anything vital in skipping it.
While most teachers and students trudge back into school after the holidays, Shelby Monroe is thrilled to be back. She loves her work, she loves using art to connect with her students but most of all her students and her work are an escape from her hellish home life. She is the main caregiver to her mother, Evie, whose Alzheimer is worsening to the point that Shelby can no longer manage with only occasional help. Other than Evie’s hired caregivers most people in Bishop are completely unaware of how much Shelby is trying to do on her own at home. Shelby is actually a master at appearing unruffled and in control even if she is terrified and in pain. People in her town have come to see her in a very particular way and she doesn’t know how to reach out and change that. She feels deeply untouchable and she thirsts to be touched and desired, to feel wantoned and abandoned to passion. She is deeply ashamed to feel that way. Even after falling prey to obsessive man in Wild Child, and having him try to slut-shame her on TV, in the eyes of most in her community, she is still good sweet Shelby and no one believes the words hurled at her. She is horrified to discover that she wishes some of them did, just so they might see that she isn’t as cold and withdrawn as she appears.
Ty is Shelby’s new neighbor. He has come to Bishop looking for a fresh start for his newly discovered son. Ty is also drowning and over-whelmed, and feels completely inadequate as father to Casey. Casey home life with Ty’s ex was unsettled, neglectful and deeply scarring, and Ty is not sure he can figure out how to make a difference in Casey’s life. Once confident and always able charm and make friends easily in any new place, Ty no longer feels so secure, and fumbles badly when Shelby shows up at his door at midnight, livid at the racket he has been making while tinkering with his bike. He makes all the wrong assumptions about her, just as she does with him.
O’Keefe did a wonderful job of drawing Shelby and Ty together, setting up how they will fall into each others arms but more importantly carefully developed how difficult it would be for Shelby who feels like she is nothing but sharp edges and the potential to deeply hurt others, to be vulnerable and to accept love. I loved how Ty is the one to stand up and set boundaries because he wants more from Shelby than angry-escapist sex and seeks to see her, not just the masks she puts up to the world.
As a pastor’s wife I was also very impressed with nuanced portrayal of faith, churches and pastoral/spousal abuse in this novel. Evie’s husband and Shelby’s father was a narcissistic preacher who verbally and emotionally abused his family. He used his power in and out of the pulpit to abuse them. While Shelby has complicated feelings about church, it is clear that faith and community also have the power to heal and mend people, as evidenced by Ty's experience of it. I loved that she could portray the fact that while abuse and hate are sometimes preached in the name of God, that is not what most churches are like.
I am going to pull up Wild Child up in my Kindle and then dive back in to O’Keefe’s backlist now that I know I shouldn't judge her characters by my first impressions and instead really get to know them since I can trust that there is more to her characters than conflict and anger.
A copy of Between the Sheets was provided by Random House Publishing Group - Bantam Dell via NetGalley for review purposes.