By Rabbi Rachel Esserman
A second chance for fame and love: that is the main premise for two recent novels: “This Bird Has Flown” by Susanna Hoffs (Little, Brown and Company) and “Once More With Feeling” by Elissa Sussman (Dell). Yet, that doesn’t adequately describe my reaction to these works because it fails to capture just how funny and entertaining they are. Yes, they have their serious moments, but reading them was like being on vacation.
Readers can assume that Hoffs knows something about rock stardom: the author was a member of the pop rock group The Bangles, which had several top 10 hits. Unfortunately, her 33-year-old heroine Jane Start only had one: her version of a lesser known song by the superstar Jonesy. But that was 10 years ago and before an album filled with her own music bombed. After breaking up with her cheating boyfriend of four years, Jane finds herself living with her parents and looking for work, any work. That includes embarrassing herself by dressing up like she did in the video she made of her one hit – something that makes her cringe now – and singing at a bachelor party in Las Vegas. But Jane’s British manager Pippa is still determined that she’ll be a success and sends Jane to London so she can write new music.
On the plane, Jane meets Tom Hardy, a professor of literature at Oxford, and is immediately attracted to him. But she wonders if she can trust her emotions since her breakup still hurts. Although she prefers to keep her own past a secret, she worries that Tom is keeping something important from her. Her feelings become even more confused when Jonesy’s people approach Pippa about having Jane perform live with him, but the details are so hush-hush that Jane has no idea what she’ll be required to do. Will she be able to find success in love or work, or is she doomed to loneliness and obscurity?
Hoffs does a wonderful job making readers understand how Jane feels when she sings, how she loses herself in the song – something not always easy because she also has stage fright. But while there are wonderful moments about music, the romance outshines them. Although Jane is a bit of a mess at the beginning of the novel, readers will be rooting for her to find her way in music and love.
While Jane was a one-hit wonder, Kathleen Rosenberg, the narrator of “Once More With Feeling,” was once a pop superstar under the name of Katee Rose – before her personal life destroyed her career. That information doesn’t spoil the plot because the opening pages of the novel quote from a Rolling Stone magazine article that calls what happened #14 in the “Top 100 Music Scandals of the Past 50 Years.” Using a similar device to that of her previous novel, “Funny You Should Ask,” Sussman alternates sections that take place “Now” and that took place “Then.” But readers won’t complain because it works beautifully by creating great suspense not only about what is going to happen, but what happened in the past. (To read The Reporter’s review of "Funny You Should Ask.”)
While Kathleen’s pop star days are long gone, she fortunately has enough money to live comfortably. She does miss performing before an audience and regrets never having fulfilled her dream of becoming a Broadway musical star. That changes when her close friend Harriet’s musical finds backers to showcase the work and, if successful, to bring it to Broadway. Even better, there is a part perfect for Kathleen. In fact, Harriet wrote the part with Kathleen in mind. There is one big problem, though: the director of the musical is Cal Kirby, with whom Kathleen has a history. He is part of the reason her career was destroyed and her anger at him has not lessened over the years. In fact, she wonders if he is only looking to humiliate her a second time. Romantic complications occur as Kathleen and Cal try to find a way to work with each other for the good of their friend and the show.
The “Then” sections of the novel focus on Kathleen’s days as Katee Rose and show the ups and downs of being a pop star. Although she loves performing, Kathleen never truly feels like Katee Rose, an artificial persona put together by her manager and staff, who worry more about her public presentation than her desire to perform as her true self. Things are complicated by her romance with Ryan LeNeve, which, at times, feels more like a public relations stunt than true love because the two have few interests in common. When Ryan becomes part of the boy band CrushZone – which also includes Cal as one of its members – life becomes extremely complicated for Kathleen.
“Once More With Feeling” is great fun and the sexual content is hot. Kathleen is an interesting and complex character, who finds it hard to admit her own mistakes publicly, but takes them to heart personally. The portrayal of Kathleen and Harriet’s friendship is also well done. The characters’ love of music, song and theater shines clearly, making this is a real treat for rom-com fans who also love music and Broadway.