Jen Doyle brings us the second of her baseball-centric stories in Called Up, the story of two best friends who must deal with a host of complications when their ten-plus year old friendship suddenly takes a turn for the romantic.
Max “Deke” Deacon is living the good life. Owning a bar and ministering to and coaching a little league team, he’s busy enough for three men. Add in his longtime friendships with five high school baseball teammates and being the apple of the eye of plenty of pretty women and his full life is a roller coaster. But then he starts looking at his best friend Angelica “Fitz” Hawkins with new eyes, and everything changes.
Fitz adores Deke, but she’s absolutely loaded with commitment issues after her parents’ untimely deaths in a tornado that left her fifteen-year-old self traumatized but uninjured. Fitz lives in the shadow of her father’s sins against Mama Gin, the well-liked matriarch of the Hawkins family and mother of her three half-siblings (one of whom is Nate, the hero of the first book in the series Calling It). Mama Gin long ago adopted Fitz into the family and Fitz and her siblings try to ignore the fact that Fitz’s dad snuck out on Mama Gin and moved on to live with Fitz and her mother under an assumed name.
Back in high school, Fitz had a crush on Deke that resulted in a mean prank, but her near-assault at the hands of high school bullies provides just one of the many factors that keeps her from pursuing their long-percolating attraction. Deke’s been hooking up with her old high school rival Peggy, for one, and for another, she doesn’t want to risk losing the ballast of his friendship. Fitz wants to leave their small town to pursue a career with the Iowa Dream Foundation (her brother’s charity, which provides children with the opportunity to play baseball in their pristine heartland hometown of Inspiration) instead of nannying for Deke’s sister. Not to mention Nate – who is protective of Fitz thanks to that long-ago near assault – watches her like a hawk, trusts Deke to watch her like a hawk yet doesn’t approve of the two of them being together. In spite of all of this, Deke commits himself to convincing Fitz their love is worth fighting for.
Call it a tie game. The appealing couple at the center of Called Up makes the book worth reading but a lot of the extraneous plot details and character behavior grate.
Deke and Fitz are both pretty sympathetic, though Deke is one of those heroes who thinks he can unclog his sexual pipes with lots of boobs and booze and then his feelings for his BFF will somehow disappear. But oh no, there he is, kneeling beside Fitz washing his triplet nephew’s hair in the backyard, and her shirt has been made transparent by their splashing and he’s openly gawking at her boobs in front of the kids. It’s a nice switch on the standard formula that Fitz is the one who’s afraid commitment because of her multiple issues; the two of them are perhaps a bit too hung up on their high school days, but their romance is, in general and with a number of exceptions contained in their early interaction, an enjoyable slow-burn that develops into a steamy slow burn.
Yet for all of its charm, the book is dotted with awkward narrative moments and characterization choices. The novel opens with the female main characters dancing in tank tops on the bar, a light spanking between Deke and Fitz, and all of the main male characters looking at the soon-to-be-married heroine of the first novel in a tank top and taking a shot to erase the image lest Nate kill them. The scene ends with mimed fellatio between the hero and the heroine. This does not entirely resemble human behavior as even plastic flamingos might know it. Maybe in beer commercials from the 80s. There are instances of too-cutesy prose; the author tries to coin the term ‘schmelationship’ for the early parts of Deke and Fitz’ relationship and – no. That does not feel like something two grown adults would call their FWB interaction.
A lot of conflict is tossed between the two of them but the most effective material is the lingering tension provided by the death of Fitz’s parents. It’s solved well and her commitment issues work beautifully. With a conflict like that there’s no need for the tired, easy Peggy material, or the weird conflict about what happened to Fitz back when she was sixteen in high school at the hands of bullies (by the time the characters agree that it was an awful thing and fuck those people, you will have come to the same conclusion yourself pages ago). Come to think of it, we don’t exactly get to understand what flipped the switch for Fitz and Deke; one moment they’re platonic friends and the next they’re staring lustfully at each other. It might’ve helped to have a moment or two of emotional bonding to establish that important switch. There are some really nice passages where Fitz finally allows herself to mourn her complex relationship with her dad, and eventually the romance ripens into something just mature enough to be believable.
The cast of supporting characters is enormous and sprawling and sadly few of them spring forth as memorable concoctions. I only really liked Lola, the woman who works at Deke’s bar. You won’t really feel lost if you haven’t read Calling It, but there’s the sensation one gets while reading Called Up of incompleteness.
In terms of the writing, the style of prose is fun and folksy. It does indulge in some info-dump-type moments (we learn of the tragic story of the death of Fitz’s parents in a couple of awkward moments of internal monologue, for instance.). But it’s a smooth and well-sculpted ride to the ultimate conclusion.
Ultimately, it’s the love story that makes Called Up worth tucking into your pocket for that seventh inning stretch. I liked Deke and Fitz most of the time, but I wanted more of their romance. Hopefully the series’ third book will tighten the narrative screws a bit and continue to improve the prose.