Romance narratives are alien to my personal experience and circumstances and I’m perfectly okay with this. It’s not what I look for in my reading and, as far as I’m concerned, “relatable” has always been a dirty-word. The important thing is that my primary fictive reading is “literarily” familiar to me: in other words, I always read Austen, the Brontës, Mrs. Gaskell, and male authors, for the romance. When I started reading romance, I finally realized what they were missing. They left me hungry for more ‘o’ that; I took my romance where I could find it. Amber Belldene’s Not Another Rock Star added a dimension to romance I’ve never experienced. It felt as close and familiar to my theological viewpoint as a romance novel can get. I say this because what I have to say about Not Another Rock Star will be coloured by that sympathetic prejudice. It isn’t part and parcel of the religious tradition in which I worship, but its theological ethos and romance raison d’être are deeply sympathetic and right. I may have lost perspective, in other words, but take the review as you will, with that in mind.
Let me start off by saying that Belldene, an Episcopal priest herself, does not write what the romance genre defines as inspirational romance. She includes religious and theological content, her heroine is a priest, but Not Another Rock Star doesn’t use a conversion narrative, or posit the idea that evangelical Christianity is the matrix of everyone’s “Come to Jesus” moment. Belldene also includes elements, pun intended, anathema to inspie romance: explicit love scenes of the premarital variety, an atheist hero and remains so, and quite a bit of spirit-imbibing, of the bottled variety.
If I’ve told you about the elements Belldene’s romance contains or doesn’t to make it inspirational-not, it’s also not like any romance I’ve ever read because it makes full and beautiful use of the Christian narrative-metaphor that crosses barriers of faith, culture, and creed. It does so by using a song that means a lot me and another that Belldene doesn’t reference, but fits her purpose, Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” and “If It Be Your Will”. Belldene believes and works out in her characters that we are broken in a million ways, by ourselves, others, and the randomness of life. She believes and works out in her characters that we can be made whole and healed by love, for each other, for the vulnerable, for ourselves, and for God. She also believes that an attitude of “listening” to the “still, small voice” of God, or conscience, or whatever you choose to call it, answers, if we adopt an attitude of active surrender.
Belldene, unlike the majority of evangelical-Christianity-based inspirational romance, is not puritanical. She is, at least in theme, and as illustrated by her characters (I don’t purport to make these assumptions on a personal basis) moved by the beauty of a practicing faith as by art, music, friendship, and love. Her romance narrative is the story of people coming to love and matter to the other, bringing them to a commitment of fidelity and love, as much as it is about, to echo one of my favourite philosophers, Ivan Illych, convivial community. Friends, family, and community play important roles in the HEA-bound romance of rock-star-bad-boy Rush Perez and Episcopal-looker-priest Suzannah “Suze” DeWitt.
But does it work as a romance, you ask? (Except for a need for an editing hone) gloriously so. Rush and Suze are “thrown together” when Peggy, Suze’s organist at St. Bartholomew’s Episcopal Church, breaks her arm and brings in Rush as a replacement. The famous rock star, founder and heart of his band “Stentorian Hush,” is in San Francisco taking care of personal business, being treated for Meniere’s disease, which he keeps secret, suffering in fear and silence, terrified at losing his band and what he loves above all else, music. When he and Suze meet, he is, though strained and drawn, a beautiful rock god. Suze is still proving herself to St. Bart’s parishioners and doesn’t find the charismatic, brilliantly talented organist any help to her win-them-over campaign. Rush and Suze start out pretty antagonistic. But they’re attracted to each other and soon joined in a shared love of music in piano-bench duets, the most important of which is Cohen’s “Hallelujah”.
I absolutely loved that the allusion threading throughout Belldene’s romance novel was Cohen’s song. I’ve loved it, sang and sing it in car and shower, since it came out in Cohen’s Various Positions album (along with “Anthem,” “If It Be Your Will,” and “You Want It Darker,” Cohen’s greatest achievements). In Cohen’s song, Susannah and Rush find a mutual love of music for human and God’s glory and an apt metaphor for woundedness in Cohen’s “broken chord,” Susannah’s perfectionism, and Rush’s hearing loss. Belldene’s Rush and Suzannah recognize brokenness in themselves and each other:
Her name was a question – are you listening? – and a demand – pay attention. She nodded stiffly against his firm hold.
“You need to know, I’m one of the broken hallelujahs.”
“Aren’t we all? That’s what makes the song so good.”
What answer does Belldene suggest in Rush and Suzannah? That brokenness is the given, but, to echo Cohen’s “Anthem”, “that’s how the light gets in”. To act freely in giving and receiving love is how the world and we can be mended. In the romance, the hero Rush, in this case, has to reach out for connection:
His ears were screwed up, and his Mama had long ago broken his heart. He wanted somebody to be broken with. He picked up his phone and sent her a text. How are you broken? Right away a symbol danced on his phone, indicating she was reading. Then the phone buzzed with her reply. Oh, the usual ways. A thousand tiny cracks and few deep fissures.
Connection and sharing heal brokenness. Rush and Suzannah must exercise their free will to connect to others in various ways: with each other, in play, conversation, the breaking of bread and sharing of bodies, and in the community, by helping and caring for others and each other, in family and friendships, by sharing the truth of themselves, of their brokenness, with each other and their family, friends, and community.
Like the Christian narrative that makes the world new through worship, prayer, and liturgy, brokenness also comes in the form of betrayal, indeed, betrayal is necessary to the working out of and towards renewal. One of the loveliest and most moving moments of Belldene’s romance is that she makes the moment of betrayal not a sin, not a bad choice, but a necessary one, a healing one, with kernels of light and possibility and love in it. Could this romance have been a more perfect one? Yes, with some pruning, with better pacing – could it have embodied what the romance narrative can and should be any better than it does? No. With or without Miss Austen, whose own faith was so circumspect, I would say in Amber Belldene’s Not Another Rock Star, “there is no charm equal to tenderness of heart,” Emma.
Amber Belldene’s Not Another Rock Star is self-published. It was released on June 27, 2017, and may be found at your preferred vendors. I received an e-ARC from the author, via Netgalley.