Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Rocking the Church: Amber Belldene's NOT ANOTHER ROCK STAR

I've been seriously fan-girling over Amber Belldene's Hot Under Her Collar series; it is one of the few contemporary romance series that manages to combine religious belief, feminist principles, and an acknowledgement that folks with spiritual conviction can also be deeply invested in the pleasures of the flesh. Belldene's series features female Episcopal ministers as protagonists, four women friends who went through divinity school together and who are now working to find their footing in their first jobs after graduation. The latest entry in the series, Not Another Rock Star, features a former opera singer turned priest who finds herself falling for a rocker who is subbing for an injured organist at her San Francisco church. Susannah ("Damn right, she was rector—the twenty-eight-year-old #girlboss" [Kindle Loc 42]) is an appealing combination of strong, sexy woman and empathetic but self-doubting parish priest who, like previous heroines in the series, struggles with a bad case of perfectionism. For Suze, said perfectionism stems from several sources: her failure to make it in the competitive opera world and her determination to do better by her spiritual calling; her feminist education, which tells her that while revealing her messy failures may help her appear more human to her congregants, since she is a woman it is also likely to lead many of those same congregants judging her as "weaker, and less capable" (908); and her highly accomplished realtor mother, who continually coaches her on how to avoid sexism by presenting a "never let 'em see you sweat" facade to the world.

The unlikely hero to Suze's "good-girl" priest is "bad-boy" Rush Perez, keyboard player of the rock band Stentorian Hush. Usually based in LA, Rush has encouraged rumors that he's checked himself into a detox center to keep the real reason for his erratic on and off-stage behavior under wraps: he's been diagnosed with Meniere's disease, a condition which causes episodes of dizziness, vertigo, and ringing in the ears, and which can lead to deafness. He's in SF to work with a doctor who specializes in the condition, hoping a new trial drug will help him enough so he can go on the road with the band for their upcoming tour, only a few months away. In the meantime, he doesn't want anyone to know about his physical problems: not his mother, not his manager, and especially not his bandmates, who he fears will toss him aside, just as his mother has.

Rush has a chip on his shoulder about church and preachers, as, on the basis of advice from her Catholic priest, his mother cut him out of her life after he turned to rock music. He's only doing a favor for a favorite teacher by filling in at Suze's church, and immediately gets off on the wrong foot with the priest by criticizing her perfectionist performance of the liturgy during church services: "I know something's off with your diva priest. She's trying too hard." [I remember having a similar feeling toward an ex-boyfriend, an actor who I felt was showing off rather than actual expressing religious feeling during services we attended together...].

But as Suze fights with some of the church's more well-heeled parishioners (including the former director of the SF Symphony, who feels that overlooking art's role in nourishing the congregation is a mistake, and who is also a former mentor of Rush's) over the establishment of an on-site food pantry, Suze and Rush have to spend more time together than just during services. And as Rush becomes involved in the food-pantry project, the two decide to act on their strong physical attraction to one another, both knowing that the relationship has a clear end-date: when the band goes on tour.

I loved how open Suze is about her sexual desires, and how willing she is to engage in a romance in which she knew the end goal was not marriage or even a long-term relationship. I also loved that despite that sex-positive attitude, her own past experiences with sex weren't always perfect. Orgasms during sex don't come easily to her, and in her perfectionism and her desire to please others (a key positive characteristic in her professional calling, but a problematic one when it comes to meeting one's own needs) she's faked orgasms in the past. After she does the same with Rush during their first time, Rush calls her on it, just the same as he called her on her "performance" during the liturgy. He's disappointed and angry, not because she lied, but because he doesn't like what such faking suggests about him: "Look, I'm not just in this to get off. I want to make you feel good" (1525). "You should have said, 'I'm not ready, slow down.' Or 'finish me off'," Rush insists. Suze acknowledges in her own head that he's right—"Perfectly reasonable words other women probably said all the time. But, it had been their first time, and she didn't want her lovers to feel like a failure for it. It was her fault, after all" (1525). Only after some honest talking, some physical experimenting, and some joking around do they reach a place where both Rush's need to please his partner and Suze's perfectionist ways can coexist in bed. And some recognizing how people sometimes get stuck in a limiting role, even (or perhaps especially when) they are engaged in something that's typically coded as "natural" behavior, like sex. Favorite line: "Did she think she was supposed to have a magic orgasm button, and come on demand when a man said so?" (1582).

As typically happens in the "just for now" type of romance, one partner in this unusual relationship starts to want more. But in this case, that partner is the male rocker, not the female priest. Suze is reluctant, having dated a would-be rocker in high school who dumped her after hitting it big. And also because Rush doesn't open up to her emotionally the way she has for him.

It takes some more honest talk, a controversial betrayal, some rallying of the friends and family Rush has kept determinedly away, and a big rejection before Suze begins to realize just how much Rush has come to matter in her life. It also takes some negotiating over how best to fulfill our many different human hungers—for food, for art, for spiritual enlightenment, for tight-knit community—before Rush and Suze can imagine a life in which a devoted priest and a disabled rock musician can both be life partners and be true to their own selves.

Illustration credits:
Meniere's Disease cartoon: via Christopher Garbrecht 
1934 Aeolian-Skinner organ at Grace Episcopal Cathedral, San Francisco, CA: Pipe Dreams

ARC via Netgalley

Not Another Rock Star
Hot Under Her Collar #3
Indie published, 2017


  1. Loving everything about this idea...except: "as, on the basis of advice from her Catholic priest, his mother cut him out of her life after he turned to rock music"

    My mind stuttered between disbelief and annoyance. Where in America today would this be possible? And, why does Bad Mother Syndrome have to rear its ugly head as character backstory? Internalized misogyny much?

  2. @ Rhode red...I hear ya and agree with you that "this" type of should not be happening in this day and age, but unfortunately it does. I'm Catholic, though I don't attend church much these days--weddings, funerals, and speaking of which....I recently attended one, and the non-Catholic sitting beside me was appalled at the "fire & brimstone" sermon. So was I, actually, thinking like you--this crap should not be happening, but it is. Mind you, I'm in Canada, not the US, but I don't think that really makes a huge difference, when it comes to radical thinking.

    As to mothers: I'm 52, and my mother was the devil incarnate till the day she died (just recently, though the funeral I mentioned was not hers- my mother spared us that at least. I cannot say if this book conveys internalised misogyny, as I haven't read it, but I do assure you that "bad" mothers exist as well as 'out-of-touch' clergymen/priests, despite the Pope's so-called liberalism he is trying to convey.

    As a side note, Jackie: I read your blog but this is my first time commenting.

  3. Hi,

    I read the book, and I wanted to clarify a point. I don't think the mother is necessarily Roman Catholic. As a matter of fact, I don't think we even learn what her tradition is. All we know is that she is a member of a very conservative Christian tradition, and that "Pastor Rico" urged her to reject her son and then cautioned her against talking to Rev. Susannah, because she wasn't "the right kind of Christian."

  4. Some further thoughts. When I read the book, I presumed that the mother was a member of an evangelical Protestant sect. Catholic priests are usually called "Father," while Protestant ministers are often called "Pastor" or "Reverend." In addition, evangelical Protestantism is growing among Latinos who are increasingly moving away from Roman Catholicism. I just presumed that is what what was going on here.

    As you mentioned, Ms. Belldene is going into a space where many writers don't dare go. She is an Episcopal priest talking about religion and sex from a Mainline Protestant perspective. That is what I just love about her. I must add too, that since I'm Episcopalian as well, I have my own fan girl crush!