It’s hard to feel sorry for Sadie Gold. When someone is born beautiful, raised rich and on the verge of filming what’s sure to be her breakout role in a blockbuster movie, her life might look pretty thoroughly charmed. But it’s easy to feel empathy for Sadie from the first moment we see her—fantasizing about a donut to motivate herself through a grueling session with her physical trainer. This isn’t a spoiled little rich girl who needs to be shaken out of her privileged existence. This is a girl who everyone expects to be spoiled, who has thus learned to work twice as hard to be taken half as seriously. We see her grit and dedication, her spirit and enthusiasm as she throws herself at her dreams with everything she has. And then we see one particular dream that fell apart, right before we learn that the stunt coordinator on her new movie is the boy who dumped her at her high school’s prom.
Bo Ibarra is a man who’s more than willing to run into a wall of fire or jump off a building—but loving Sadie scared him enough to send him running the other way, worried that he didn’t fit into her high society life and that she’d eventually come to resent him. But when they’re reunited for the first time in more than a decade, that fear is overpowered by the crackling chemistry they still share. Rekindling their physical relationship is easy and fun, but rebuilding trust will be significantly harder, especially since Sadie’s hiding a secret about their past.
Most of the story is breezy and playful, an entertaining romp between attractive, appealing characters who share an engaging backstory, an adventurous spirit and a love of movie quotes—particularly when it comes to Star Wars. It’s fun for the reader to go behind the scenes of a big budget movie, but that element of the story is touched on pretty lightly, and there are only a handful of scenes involving filming. Most of Johnson’s focus is on the characters reconnecting and rebuilding their rapport, and the challenge that connection faces when someone attempting to blackmail Sadie threatens to reveal her secret.
Highlight to reveal spoilers: The secret is that shortly after Bo ended their relationship, Sadie found out she was pregnant—and got an abortion. It wasn’t a decision she made lightly or without sorrow, but it’s a choice she looks back on without regret. The revelation of that secret provides the story’s climax as Bo struggles to come to terms with it—but Once Upon a Bad Boy is ultimately a celebration of choice and of a woman’s right to determine the direction her life takes. Sadie models that strength in how she lived her past, how she handles her present and how she builds a new future with Bo.