Off The Record: A Novel

offtherecord.jpgHelenKay:  Ever wondered what happened to the quiet boy who sat in the back row in homeroom then moved away during the Summer?  What about the cute guy who lived down the block and transferred to another school when his parents got divorced?  Imagine what could have happened if you forgot about him, but he didn’t forget about you.  That is the theory behind Off The Record, a chick lit offering about growing up without growing stagnant that falls short of the zip and promise of it’s clever premise. 

Jane Marlow is a straight-laced attorney on the partnership track at her firm.  Her life is clean and sterile and organized.  She is an asset at work, even though she appears only to be entrusted with one big case and somehow is expected to meet a billable hour requirement of 2,200 hours per year off that case.   She chooses work over play.  She cancels plans with her friends in order to meet that billable hour requirement and blames her long-dead father for all of her woes.

Her life speeds along her chosen path until her brother Andy figures out their old neighbor Theodore Brockford is actually the former one-hit wonder pop star Teddy Rock.  Teddy’s big hit fifteen years ago was called Janey 245.  Andy decides Jane is Janey and decides that Teddy’s career resurgence is a great opportunity to reintroduce Jane and Teddy and might be just the answer for the failing bar owned by their surrogate father and Andy’s boss, Sam. 

In addition to fighting off her brother’s flights of fancy, Jane has to deal with a problem in her one case and an unexpected attraction to Drew, the partner the firm ships in from D.C. to Chicago to assist Jane on the case.  Both Teddy and Drew force Jane to reexamine her life.  Teddy introduces her to a superstar world filled with talk show, radio programs and public events.  She enjoys being Janey and all the attention that goes along with being the object of a rock star’s affections.  She throws off her boring lawyer wardrobe, ignores her job (despite a pending decision on whether or not she is going to be offered partnership) and travels to events with Teddy.  Teddy’s presence allows her to be Janey, whether she really is or not. 

Jane’s attraction to the carefree life Teddy offers battles with her growing desire for handsome Drew.  The men snarl at each other, each trying to stake a claim.  Jane, rather than retreat to her boring clothes, boring job and boring life, revels in the attention.  For once in her adult life, she puts aside her commitments.  Jane is smart, dedicated and outwardly strong.  Inside she’s frozen.  Off the Record is about her evolution from pretty worker bee to something else – to something she was before and something she lost. 

One of the problems here is with Jane’s growth.  Her change from the beginning of the book to the end is handled only in a peripheral manner.  The result is a shallow examination of who she is and how she got there. 

The secondary characters here do not break new ground either.  Andy appears to be a slacker, but really isn’t.  Drew appears to be a womanizer, but really isn’t.  Jane’s friends – one former attorney turned mom and the other a doctor – spend a lot of time eating and gossiping about boys but don’t really add anything to the story or move it forward.  The other characters, such as Sam, Jane’s mom and Jane’s boss act more as placeholders than part of the action.

The secondary character given the most loving attention here is Chicago.  O’Connell’s obvious knowledge of the city and love of the same is on display.  She knows the area and handles it with loving charm.  Unfortunately, the characters do not get the same broad attention and care.

Off The Record starts with a different idea, one to which everyone can connect on some level.  O’Connell manages to do something few can – she finds a novel idea and runs with it.  While the plot moves along at a steady pace, Jane’s somewhat flat affect, the implausibility of her life as an attorney as set out here and the all too familiar character sketches keep this book from as interesting and snappy as it should be.

Wendy:  Was there really a pretty, pretty, pretty, pretty Peggy Sue?  Or, how about Mandy, who came and gave without taking?  Or, Sweet Caroline, who makes good times seem so good, so good, so good?  Have any of the women whose names grace the soundtrack of our lives actually existed?  If they have, what must it feel like to have an army of Kiss fans sing, Beth I hear you callin’ and know that those words were meant for you?  Or, roll through the stereo dial and discover that Bruce Springsteen wants to die with you Wendy on the streets tonight in an ever lasting kiss?  Or, see an 80s retrospective that plays the song that makes you wonder what you ever saw in the guy who had your phone number and passed it to the entire world, Jenny I got your number, 867-5309?

Jennifer O’Connell has wondered about the girls behind the songs and the result of those ruminations is her third novel, Off the Record.  The story of Jane Marlow discovering she was the inspiration for one hit wonder Teddy Rock’s “Janey 245” is charming and could be plucked from the daydreams of any woman who wonders, “could it be?” and “what if?” 

The premise is a seductive one: the boy who blended into the background in junior high, grew up to be a gorgeous, hip-swiveling rock-god.  His reign was short, the time it takes for one single to rise to the top of the charts then plummet into obscurity.  But, that song that was everywhere, the one everyone sang along to, and screamed the chorus at the top of their lungs, is all about you.

The idea that Jane could be the legendary Janey is slow to take root, especially when her younger could-they-possibly-be-from-the-same-gene-pool brother, Andy is the one who spots the possible connections.  Jane doesn’t see herself as the kind of woman men sing about; she’s a lawyer, the kind of woman men seek estate planning and trust fund advice from.  She lays out her clothes the night before work, she arranges the money in her wallet face-out and by denomination, she takes care of everyone but herself, and she always, always does what is expected of her.  Jane isn’t a rock anthem; she’s a minivan: solid, safe, dependable. 

Off the Record’s magic is that Jane, like so many women, harbors the desire to be desirable in that memorable or spirited enough way to be someone’s muse.  It isn’t logical that Jane—or any woman—would put so much importance on the idea of being special, not when her career is a success, she’s up for partner, at her law firm, and she appears, to the outside world at least, to being keeping all the balls in the air.  That she wants to break out of her self, have a life with a bit of sparkle to it, is what makes Jane likable and compelling.  She wants to believe, even if she dare not say it out loud, that she could be the Janey Teddy Rock wrote a song about.  The Janey in the song has wanton thighs and made a momma’s boy sin.  For Jane, it’s an outlet, permission to be emboldened.  Janey wouldn’t do what was expected of her, so Jane can take risks like saying yes when visiting partner Drew Weston asks if he can tag along with Jane to Sam’s Place, the bar of a friend of the family.  Once there, since no one would expect Jane to jump on stage with a local DJ and admit that she is Janey 245—but it’s exactly what Janey from the song would do—Jane does.

Once Jane admits her fantasy out loud, “I’m Janey 245,” it becomes a self fulfilling prophecy with a life of its own and it isn’t long before she’s on David Letterman’s couch reuniting with Teddy.  Meeting Teddy is more like it, because the boy Jane remembers is long gone and she wonders if the Janey with ruby lips and satin skin ever existed. 

O’Connell creates interesting dichotomies in Off the Record.  The obvious, of course, is between the staid, billable hours Jane and the not so staid talk show and radio guest Janey.  More subtly she pits has been rocker, Teddy—the man who followed his dreams and lived them out—against Drew—the man who would like to have played baseball or have been a rock star, but went to law school instead.  What each of the men wants, or needs, from Jane is another juxtaposition of motivations:  Teddy needs what Jane, as the grounded mature lawyer on his arm, can bring to the public’s perception of him as he attempts a comeback, where Drew understands with uncomfortable clarity who Jane is and appreciates the lightening up her turn as Janey brings.  O’Connell’s touch is light and fine, never blunt or heavy-handed.  Her characterizations are subtle and superb, from the way Andy brushes crumbs from Jane’s sofa onto her floor, to Drew’s willingness to jump behind the bar at Sam’s Place and pull draft beer, to Jane “knowing” the correct direction the toilet paper should hang from the roll.  The characters are built through their dialog and reinforced through their actions beautifully.    

Off the Record takes a deeply held fantasy and makes it believable through Jane.  The voice is winning with dashes of understated humor (“Nobody puts Janey in the corner.”) and grounded with Jane’s intelligence.  Teddy is the fantasy, but no matter how appealing that might be, Jane never lets go of the niggling voice of reason in the back of her head.  There are times in Off the Record, specifically with Drew, where it feels as though the story has picked up already in progress.  Even the coming-late-to-the-party feel of Drew and Jane’s first meeting doesn’t overly burden otherwise sparkling storytelling.

Wendy’s Response to HelenKay:  HelenKay isn’t a name you often find on key chains or souvenir coffee mugs, and I don’t believe I’ve ever flipped on the radio and heard any song lyrics devoted you.  But, if you were the inspiration for a song, would you want to be the girl who breaks the singer’s heart or the girl the singer stupidly left behind?

HelenKay’s Response to Wendy:  This is a touchy subject.  Never being able to buy a key chain, mug or anything monogrammed was a source of never-ending teenage angst.  The good thing about having a unique (notice I didn’t say "strange") name is that it is easy to know when someone is talking about you. 

As for your question, I would want to be the girl who breaks the guy’s heart because, really, what guy could leave me behind…?   Seriously, this is a charming and warm idea. I wanted to love the book – was almost desperate to do so – but couldn’t get there.  That’s more depressing to me at the moment than being forgettable in junior high or having a difficult name.

HelenKay’s Final Thought:  A smart start that stumbles in its execution.  Recommended with reservations.

Wendy’s Final Thought:  Off the Record is off the hook.  Recommended.

You can visit Jennifer here and purchase this book here and here.

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