Playing for Keeps
I have read Karen Templeton before and enjoyed her, so I was glad to have the opportunity to review her newest, Playing for Keeps. At the very least, I knew the book would be readable and chock full of down-to-earth characters. Templeton has a knack for making the mundane details of the everyday come to life.
Johanna Swann is a divorced mother of three who crafts custom-made Santa Clauses for a living. Most of her problems stem from having too little time and too little money. She and her ex-husband, Bobby, don’t have an adversarial relationship; he is an actively involved parent, committed to his kids, and concerned about Johanna. But he is, unfortunately, more than a little on the flaky side. He forgets things, he loses track of time, and he underestimates the importance of things Johanna considers vital. So between having to clean up after and organize her kids and her ex, Johanna is tired all the time and doesn’t get out much.
Dale McConnaughy is an ex-baseball superstar. His pitching arm went bad, and so he opened a toy store in Albuquerque. He runs into Johanna in his toy shop and offers to sell her Santa Clauses. Johanna’s mother, Glynnie, eyes him over and decides to encourage her daughter’s social life, so she buys a play fort for her twin grandsons’ birthday. As things happen, Dale is the one who comes to install it for Johanna. And during the birthday party, just about everyone Johanna knows gives Dale the nudge.
Neither Dale nor Johanna is in the proper space to start a lifetime relationship, but Johanna figures Dale can be her “gap guy” – the man who fills the time until she meets Mr. Right. Dale doesn’t quite know what he sees in Johanna. He’s never had a “normal” girlfriend before. He’s used to being used by women. But whatever he sees, he wants to see more of it. As they spend more time together, both of them realize what they have isn’t nearly enough. But can they take the leap of faith required by true love? Will they decide to play for keeps?
As I mentioned before, Templeton’s strength lies in weaving interesting patterns from the cloth of the everyday. This is a story about the after- effects of divorce. Johanna is divorced, and so is Dale. Johanna’s best friend is divorced. Yet all of the people in Johanna’s life have managed to keep the connections they need to survive and make from this a bumpy, comfy social safety net. Johanna sees her ex almost daily. Bobby lives only a few minutes away and shares parenting duties. Johanna’s parents still see Bobby socially. Bobby’s new (and pregnant) girlfriend, Tori, comes to all the family events, and her mother’s new husband is also included in this spider- web relationship. Readers who want to read about more amicable divorce situations will find a lot to like here. Bobby is never vilified. He’s a very sympathetic character with problems of his own. Dale is really the only one without these kinds of ties, and watching the other characters pull him in and wrap him in the web was very satisfying. It’s always so gratifying to see lonely people stop being so alone.
In the beginning, Johanna and Dale’s attraction to one another is palpable. Their chemistry, though, is not sustained throughout the book. Templeton writes the touches, the looks, the intensity of their wanting very clearly, and then shoves that aspect under the table for a while to concentrate on some repetitive (and familiar) mental dialogue about how neither of them could possibly be right for the other or settle down in marriage again.
The big mystery in the story is Dale’s family background. He never discusses this with anyone, and it becomes a point of contention between him and Johanna. How this is resolved and how it works into the other family problems Johanna and Bobby have is both affecting and slightly frustrating. Unfortunately, Templeton chooses to have the major conflict “resolution” occur off-stage, which weakened the effect of the resolution since the reader doesn’t experience it directly.
Playing for Keeps is a nice romance about hope and healing between flawed but genuinely kind characters. With its emphasis on community and connectedness, it reminded me a bit of Robyn Carr’s books. My mom just loves those. I’ll have to pass this one along to her. I have a feeling Templeton might just have a new fan in her.