by Roslyn Hardy Holcomb, contemporary (2006)
Indigo, $9.95, ISBN 1-58571-200-0
Okay, confess, people, how many of you out there once dreamed or still dream of marrying a hot celebrity figure? Roslyn Hardy Holcomb's first romance novel Rock Star has a - what else? - rock star hooking up with a woman who runs a bookstore and lives in a small town in Alabama called Maple Fork. I know, we've probably read hundreds of painful Mary Sue stories on places like fanfiction.net and giggled at some of the more memorable pink-tinted fantasies of young girls running away with the teenybopper idol of the moment and indulge in hilariously unrealistic sexual escapades that only the minds of imaginative but sheltered young girls can come up with. Rock Star, while remaining true to its Mary Sue roots, is nonetheless an enjoyable story that has me happily going along for the fantasy roller-coaster ride.
Oh, and maybe I should point this out since the cover on the back blurb doesn't indicate this and the only hint a reader will get is from the logo on the spine that indicates this book as part of the Love Spectrum imprint of Indigo: the heroine Callie Lawson is, in her own words, "a skinny, nappy-headed black girl from North Alabama" while the hero Bryan Spencer is a long-haired white guy who also happens to be the frontsman of the group Storm Crow.
Callie runs the bookstore Books and So Forth which she started with her friend Tonya Stevens. She's proud of the shop because it caters to kids in schools looking for reading materials as well as people in this area looking for fiction. It's a pretty successful venture and Callie who likes to see herself as an entrepreneur can't be any happier as the bookstore co-owner and co-manager. One day in walks a man that catches her eyes and flirts with her named Bryan. He seems very interested in her and even if she hasn't gone out with any white guys before, she is nonetheless interested in return. Then he reveals that he's a rock star and oh dear, any down-to-earth and pragmatic lady has to wonder how they will ever fare as a couple for the long run. Nonetheless, Bryan has been attracted to her at first sight and he doesn't intend to give up anytime soon on pursuing her.
Bryan has issues, of course. His band mate and close friend died of an overdose recently and with the band rocked by allegations of substance abuse Bryan decides to retreat to this small town hoping to find a way to confront his feelings of guilt (he could have and should have stopped his friend from getting out of control, et cetera) and what-not. Callie, who embodies the Mary Sue in every one of us that hopes to play tambourines and compose love poetry with the band frontsman that captured our fancy, manages to give sage counsel to Bryan that allows him to find some measure of inner peace and to fall in love more with her. But at the end of the day, can a small-town gal from a conservative family find a happily ever after with a larger-than-life pretty boy from a rock band?
The romance is tailor-made to represent a very familiar Mary Sue daydream: the guy falls in love with the special heroine from the start and his feelings are unwavering and unmoved by doubts and it is the heroine who has to decide whether to go with the guy or not. The heroine isn't aware of how special she is but at the right moments, she will discover that she knows how to say the things that the hero needs to hear in order to heal his broken heart. Because Callie is the special person that understands him, how can he not see through the smalltown girl facade of Callie and see the beautiful woman that he has been waiting for all his life? There is, of course, a jealous woman who wants our man so she tries to slander our heroine's reputation but at the end of the day, our special heroine gets her man and the whole world loves her for it.
Mind you, I am not mocking this book as much as I am trying to point out how unerringly Ms Holcomb has captured a typical young woman's daydreams of grand romance with a hot guy that she only knows from CDs, MTV, and maybe from a distance away in a concert hall. I won't laugh at any reader who buys this book and mentally substitutes Bryan with the name of whoever musician that she or he has a crush on because this book is well-written enough to allow the reader a few hours of vicarious pleasure in, shall we say, living out the dream.
While the development of the story is predictable, Ms Holcomb manages to show that she has a pretty deft hand in characterization. While Callie could have been a one-dimensional perfect little princess under other circumstances, Ms Holcomb gives Callie plenty of facets in the character's personality that allows her to come off as pretty real as well as likable. Callie isn't a typical heroine saddled by all kinds of contrived neuroses with regards to men and sex, for a start - she is too busy with her store to really find time to meet men and to Ms Holcomb's credit, she manages to make this admittedly contrived line of reasoning to keep Callie "real" as some good gal pretty convincing. Callie is shown to really work in her store, for one, so it is a very real possibility that Callie's first love until now has been her store. Besides, we all know that a busy woman doesn't need a man to have some fun nowadays as long as she has her trusty battery-operated boyfriend at hand in a drawer. Also, Callie's inability to recognize Bryan from the start despite him being a very successful rock star comes off as pretty credible as well since she is more of a book person. I can only speak for myself, of course, but I won't recognize the frontsman of any of today's college rock station bands if that fellow walks past me so yes, I think it is possible that Callie can't recognize Bryan.
Callie in this story has a steady support network of friends and family members but these secondary characters aren't too intrusive even if I'm sure stories or book proposals for some of them are already at the table of the author's editor as I write this. I like how Callie manages to show respect and affection to her parents while still resolutely holding own her when it comes to decisions regarding her own life. When her father goes too far, for example, she has no problems telling him to back off. Callie's parents and friends seem like real people rather than stereotypes created with the sole purpose of advancing the plot. These secondary characters help Callie come off as an even more likable level-headed person.
Bryan is too obvious as a perfect boyfriend/soulmate material - he stopped doing drugs a long time before and the gossips about his wild behavior with groupies are mostly just gossips. In short, he's like a My First Boyfriend character wearing a bad boy exterior that can be easily washed off like the tattoos ex-boyband members sport along with new artfully cropped stubble when they decide to project a "harder" image for their solo albums. Of course, just like the dream bad boy soulmate of every bookish girl that writes fanfiction, Bryan has a rather overused hidden aspect of him that he reveals only to few people - he reads. This gives Callie an edge over other pretty but not-so intellectual women when it comes to proving that Justin Timberlake, er, Bryan Spencer loves a woman with depths so
Cameron Diaz what's-her-name in this story CAN GO TO HELL BCUZ HES MINE!!!!!!1111ELEVENTYONE!!!! can so suck pebbles. Nonetheless, despite Bryan's too obvious raison d'etre as Callie's perfect fairytale hero and sex toy, he remains a likable character to me because I'm a sucker for a man who loves to read, especially for gory parts in stories about wars, and Ms Holcomb manages to make Bryan's passion for things he love quite real.
Ultimately, that's what makes this book work so well in my opinion. There is a strong sense of genuine affection of the author for her characters. Therefore, this story doesn't come off like a calculated effort to pander to the reader's fantasies. The prose flows smoothly and remains very readable. Even when the events towards the end of the book that cause all that Great Drama between our two lovebirds can get pretty contrived, the characters especially Callie never seem too unreasonable. She remains an intelligent woman who may have her moments of weaknesses - then again, who doesn't - but ultimately she realizes what she has to realize and makes the right decision. Bryan doesn't really get much deeper as a character than a safe My First Boyfriend action figure but his constancy and unwavering affections for Callie are very, very attractive if I may say so. There's nothing like a man who knows quickly that he's in love and isn't afraid to show it when it comes to a romance hero. He's kinda like the hero in La Bamba when it comes to love minus the plane crash at the end that ruins the mood considerably.
What raises this book above a generic Mary Sue fantasy though is the fact that by the end of this story, Callie and Bryan confront and address most of the pertinent issues in their relationship, thus giving the happy ending a solid sense of credibility. It also helps that while Callie has her doubts about Bryan's life on the road with groupies and needles, she eventually realizes that she has to learn to trust him and not let prejudices keep her from risking her heart with Bryan. Callie can behave really stupidly during the Great Drama at the end but the author forces Callie through a few wake-up calls that Callie eventually comes to her senses. On the other hand, I wish Bryan isn't so willing to wait and try to get Callie back because there are times when he comes this close to being a wimp but considering his role in this story as Callie's Special Boyfriend, I will be more surprised if he issues Callie an ultimatum. In a Mary Sue fantasy, the hero never contradicts the heroine in any way apart from issuing rare and very mild rebukes, after all.
As for the issue of race, Ms Holcomb doesn't get too preachy on the soapbox. She does have her preachy moments in this story, but she gets the message out clear enough without turning the story into a special Oprah Winfrey episode. Ms Holcomb is pretty blunt about some people's prejudices when it comes to a relationship like that of Callie and Bryan as well as the media's emphasis on portraying Black women with specific physical traits and skin tone as beautiful and even sexual while ignoring the rest of the population that don't look like Tyra Banks.
The flaws I notice are mostly technical ones such as often haphazard head-hopping but I'm sure these problems can be remedied with experience.
Rock Star can be predictable and even standard as a nobody-meets-celebrity fantasy but the author demonstrates that she has a flair for characterization. She is attuned to the actions and feelings of her characters and when they are being silly, she isn't afraid to hammer them. Therefore, there is a very strong "keeping it real" vibe to this book despite its Mary Sue overtones. The characters feel real and for the most part can act pretty real given the circumstances they find themselves in and as a result, the story is fine read with a romance that indeed seems possible. For a debut novel that turns out this well, I think this book rocks.
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