Having done a recommendation of Batman: Court of Owls, one of three Batman inspired novels, I thought I would read through the other three and recommend them. And since September marks Harley Quinn's 27th birthday, I thought I'd do Mad Love first. This book is written by Paul Dini and is inspired by the Batman Adventures issue of the same name as well as an episode in Batman Animated Series not too long after.
Fun Fact: all three of these were written by Paul Dini, so I guess you could say he's really familiar with the story.
The story starts off with Harley as a child going to an amusement park in Coney Island. She would see her father get beaten by thugs then arrested. She would come back to this amusement park only to come across these thugs again, who attempt to attack her. He mother would come to save her and an argument between Harley's parents would ensue when she gets home. The story would jump ahead several years to a now 17 year old Harley at a gymnastics competition, where we get an update on her living situation (her mom is home and her dad is in prison) and that she has the potential to get a scholarship out of the gymnastics program she's in. This is all we get before it jumps again to Harley's freshmen year in college, where we start to see some of the Batman oriented stuff make an appearance. Mostly the talk of Batman, the mention of Gotham and Arkham, and the foreshadowing to her career in psychology.
What I liked about this pre-Gotham/early years part is that we get to see a bit into Harley's childhood. You get to Harley begin to question who the good guys are. SOmething we get to see a bit of in the book.
There would be one more time jump to Harley's first few days at Arkham Asylum. And she gets a glimpse of a few familiar faces, such as Pamela Isely (Poison Ivy) and Killer Croc, who attempts to charge towards her, as well as several other characters from the Animated Series We also get a small glimpse at the Joker, but he doesn't make his actual appearance and first encounter with Harley for a few chapters.
We spend the first few chapters with Harley in a group therapy with some of the female inmates, which includes Poison Ivy, who would later become a close friend of Harley's in the animated series (which has also become something of a staple in the current comics). And by the time we get to the third, Harley has been ganged up on by the inmates, with Ivy acting as the ring leader and aid to Harley once things really go out of control.
Quite the start for their blossoming friendship, no? Pun intended.
Once we go through these sessions, we finally get to what I'd like to call the iconic encounter. That being Harley and Joker's. It kind of flips between Harley's and the Joker's perspective, but seems mostly set on Harley's. For Harley, it starts off as a curiosity, and she keeps their sessions professional. While the Joker views it as something he can have fun with.
You'll see him spin a tale about his childhood and Batman, which is what draws her to him.
With each session we see Harley getting more and more interested in Joker. And not just as a patient, but the beginning of an infatuation for him. Harley develops a love for this patient, and after a coordinated accident that get the Joker out (minutely) exposes this. And after the recapture at Batman's hand and Harley getting fired for defending him, Harley dawns the black and red costume that she would be known for (at least until the New 52 comics and the Suicide Squad movie).
Once she does, we get into her life of crime, starting with breaking the Joker out of prison. However, with this breakout, the Joker's more chaotic and violent tendencies come out. He wants Harley to be less affectionate when the "boys" (thugs) are around. His patience is tested with how Harley performs in a crime that gets Batman involved. Even so, she still holds this love for the Joker,not wanting to see just how bad he is.
But what comes as a rude wake up is when she tries to implement his plan, with an improvement to make it work the way the Joker would want, she finds herself shoved out of a window. All because she "explained the joke".
If you are familiar with this story, I think you'll find this as a pretty faithful read (with the only differences being it set in a more modern setting since smartphones and Youtube are a thing). If you're not, you might find this an interesting yet cautious tale. It might not be for everyone, but I would recommend this novel and is better suited for adults (which is where it can be found, under our science fiction section).