At the Back Fence Issue #274

August 13, 2007 – Issue #274

From the Desk of Laurie Likes Books:

What’s Your Hallelujah?

The other day I watched a re-run of a very early episode of Scrubs, and in a trio of scenes all spliced together, the three residents lost their patients in slow-motion while a version of Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah played.

When we were in Vermont in June visiting our daughter, we watched Bon Jovi unplugged on VH1. The only “cover” they played? Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah, at which point our daughter said,”Go find Hum Hallelujah by Fall-out Boy on YouTube”, which I did…they sample a very small part of Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah (it’s about 2 minutes and 30 seconds in) .

For many of us, our introduction to Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah was either in the movie Shrek or in the pivotal Posse Comitatus episode of The West Wing. At the end of the episode, while President Bartlett attends an opera also attended by his Republican rival, CJ’s bodyguard/love interest (played by Mark Harmon) is killed and an assassination ordered by Bartlett of a MIddle Eastern terrorist is carried out. Rufus Wainright’s haunting interpretation accompanies these scenes as they play out in slow motion. John Cale’s take is featured in Shrek (although they chose Wainright to appear on the soundtrack), and on Scrubs, the Jeff Buckley’s version plays.

I’ve heard versions of Cohen’s Hallelujah on episodes of House, Without a Trace, LOST, Rescue Me, Criminal Minds, Numb3rs, and Joan of Arcadia, to name just some of the roughly 30 renditions of the song that have appeared on the soundtrack of various television shows – and the occasional movie (Basquiat) over the past two decades. Each singer’s interpretation is different. Leonard Cohen’s original recording is as…well, it’s Leonard Cohen. But Jeff Buckley, John Cale, Rufus Wainwright, and indie-singer Allison Crowe each make the lyrics and melody their own. I’d urge you to listen to versions from each of these gifted singers, then compare them to what Cohen himself has said about the song: “It’s, as I say, a desire to affirm my faith in life, not in some formal religious way but with enthusiasm, with emotion…. It’s a rather joyous song.”

Why delve into the history of Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah? I’m so glad you asked. It’s a ubiquitous song – one I happen to love – and therefore the perfect way for me to begin talking about favorite ubiquitous romance novel staples. As I’ve repeated, ad nauseam, one of the things I most look forward to in a romance novel is a traditional plot or set of characters, but written in such a way that they seem fresh and vivid rather than tired, one-dimensional, and hackneyed.

Here are some of my favorite staples:

The Stuffed-Shirt Hero and the Free-Spirited Heroine: It’s hard to imagine my loving any of this type of book more than those I read very early on. They remain the benchmark for me. Jill Barnett’s Bewitching (1993), Rebecca Paisley’s A Basket of Wishes (1995), and Deborah Simmons’ The Vicar’s Daughter (1995). Each of these has a DIK review here at AAR; I couldn’t do any better trying to convey my feelings about them than their reviewers did.

The Revenge Romance: Mary Balogh’s The Temporary Wife (1997) doesn’t match the mainstream definition of a revenge romance; the hero didn’t sully the heroine in order to get back at her father or fiance. Instead, the hero marries the heroine and takes her back to his family’s estate, figuring she is so unsuitable that it’ll annoy the hell out of his father. He realizes that marriage is permanent, but after he causes his father to apoplexy, he’ll set her up somewhere to rusticate while he returns to his life. Nonnie St. George’s brilliant review well serves this fabulous trad Regency.

The Widow/er or Widowed Parent Romance: What I love about this broad theme is that it can be broken into so many sub-sets, including those for Horrendous First Spouses (Cupid’s Mistake by Karen Harbaugh, 1997), Perfect First Spouses/Faux Perfect First Spouses (Smooth Talkin’ Stranger by Lorraine Heath, 2004 and Irresistible by Catherine Hart, 1994, respectively), Marriages of Convenience (A Family for Gillian by Catherine Blair, 2001), Governess Romances (Tallie’s Knight by Anne Gracie, 2001), and Mail Order Brides (Mail-Order Bride by Maureen McKade, 2000).

The Hero as Pursuer: Stephanie Laurens practically invented the romance of a rake hero who finds himself in the position of trying to convince the heroine to marry him. So what can I choose other than Devil’s Bride (1998)?

The Cold Hero: The Secret Passion of Simon Blackwell (Samantha James, 2007) – I wrote on my blog that James’ story “doesn’t necessarily break new ground as far as premises are concerned” and that I was sure “a good many readers will not love it as I did, and will find the storyline too conventional and well-worn.” The book also had a Big Secret that the hero took far too long to reveal to the heroine. And yet I adored this book; it was my first DIK read of the year. What I particularly loved were the hero’s poignant diary entries, and that as as cold and tortured as he was, he never lashed out at the heroine. He wasn’t a mean tortured hero, just one so cold he was almost pure ice. Watching his heroine thaw him out and help him out of his personal hell delighted me.

The Matchmaking Relative: In general I find that matchmaking relatives work best as comedy, even if they are not a part of comedic stories. Nora Roberts’ Daniel MacGregor (the MacGregor series, 1985 – 1999) is the prime example of this. The patriarch of a large and successful family, he interferes in the love lives of his children and grandchildren over a series of several books. He’s a wily one, that Daniel, and just thinking about him brings a smile to my face.

The Clueless Hero/Heroine: When a hero or heroine finds out something those around him/her have known for a long time, it can be a brilliant moment. My all-time favorite romance, Julie Garwood’s Castles (1993), proves the point in an hilarious scene involving the hero, his father, and the heroine as they try to devise a list of suitable spouses for the heroine. The hero rejects one after another for Seinfeld-esque reasons: one has bow-legs, another gambles, and still another has a case of “bad humours”. The icing on the cake is that it is the hero who must point out to the heroine that she loves him…and that he’s so lovable she actually thanks him for the insight.

The Rescue Romance: Ice Storm (Anne Stuart, 2007) – This one won’t be released until November, but I’m reading an ARC now. It’s almost an oxymoron to say that Stuart has written around a traditional premise, but the premise of this book is a rescue, albeit one turned on its ear. Those who have been reading her Ice series and wondered about Madame Lambert, this is her story…I think that’s all I need to say.

The Plain-Jane Romance: Do I talk (again!) about Lord St. Claire’s Angel (Donna Simpson, 1999) or Lydia Joyce’s Music of the Night (2005)? Both were DIK reads for me – and both earned DIK status by AAR reviewers. Each also fits in a different category: Simpson’s book is also a governess story and Joyce’s is a tale of revenge. Both books were written by incredibly fresh voices; Angel was Simpson’s first book and Night was Joyce’s second.

Some of the favorites I’ve detailed were either the first book by that author I read – the Garwood, for instance – while others were the first I read of a particular type of romance. Not only had I not read Barnett or Paisley before, I’d not read any fantasy romance before their two books, which somehow I read back to back. Their books were “gateway” romances for me, widening my experience as a reader. But most were not; indeed, the authors who wrote them achieved something critical. They took a traditional theme that I’d read many times before…and made it seem new.

Even though I gravitate toward each of the themes discussed, I could easily list failed romances to contrast with the successes, but to lead you into a discussion, I want to focus on the positive as far as themes as examples are concerned. I look forward to talking about your Hallelujah’s on the forum.

Questions To Consider

What are your personal Hallelujah’s – the themes that crop up often in the books you like?

Of these themes, which romances did it best…and which failed for you?

What were your “gateway” romances to these themes, and which remain among your favorites?

Are there any themes you enjoyed that surprised you? Please include some details in your response, including the reason why you didn’t think you’d like the theme, and which book(s) created your gateway.

Are there any themes you once loved that you no longer do? Please include the title of the book(s) that soured you on the theme, and why it no longer works for you.

As a reader, are you more comfortable with or excited by romances featuring a fresh take on a traditional theme or new themes?

I’m hoping we might be able to add a new Special Title Listing for Matchmaking Relatives. Please include some of your favorite titles with this theme so we can give it due consideration.

TTFN, as Tigger said to Winnie the Pooh,
Laurie Likes Books

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(AAR uses BYRON for its romance reference needs)