Classical Greek theatre had comedies and tragedies. The older comedies featured competing groups, and usually ended with everyone on stage. The humour comes from pranks the groups play on each other, and there are lots of references to sex. Any movie about zany students versus teachers or other students, especially if it ends with a dance or party, is a continuation of this form. So-called New Comedy was about the coming together of a couple, and the humour comes from obstacles such as friends and family opposed to the union, or helping too enthusiastically. This is now the familiar romantic comedy, and it typically ends with the couple united in one form or another. Many Harlequins are romantic comedies, and even those without obvious humour usually have a least a few wry moments.
Learning to Hula, on the other hand, is a tragedy. Yes, there is a story arc of a growing relationship, but that is not the focus of the story. Classical Greek tragedy is about the fall of a hero, usually due to a character flaw, and that is the focus of this book. I wasn’t expecting a tragedy. Learning to Hula is a Harlequin Next, from 2006, by Lisa Childs. The Next imprint features women who are divorced or widowed, and I’d just recently read the fun Accidental Princess. The title and the unusual cover suggest humour, as does the front cover blurb: “When life gets shaky, you’ve just got to dance.” The first person narrative also led me to expect humour. Given that I was expecting comedy, and got tragedy, it’s hard for me to give this book a fair review. I’ll try.
Holly DeJong’s husband died six months ago. It was a car accident, caused by his heart attack, caused by eating too many cupcakes. He left her with two teenagers, and lots of money, thanks to life insurance and a business she sells. Not that she was in need of money – the family live in a luxurious house, built on a piece of her parent’s former farm, with money from the sale of the farm. Holly’s sisters live nearby, in luxury houses of their own. Classical comedies are about ordinary people rising up, while tragedies are about great figures falling. By stressing the wealth of the family, and the husband’s fatal weakness for cupcakes, Childs is clearly writing in the classical tragedy genre.
Holly and her children are having a lot of trouble dealing with the death of their father. Meanwhile, Holly’s sister Pam is leaving her husband for no obvious reason, and sister Emma, long divorced, is having problems with the children in her new blended family. Every event, from Holly’s ex-brother in law making a pass at her, to the revelation of her mother’s secret relationship, is an opportunity to reconsider the late husband and his fondness for cupcakes. When Holly’s daughter’s piano teacher dies, during a piano lesson, there’s more grieving and an onstage funeral.
Early in the story there are occasional references to deputy Nathan, the officer who brought the news of the husband’s death, and eventually Nathan plays a larger role. At the end of the story, Holly is prepared to love again, though she’s not sure if Nathan is the right man.
Holly’s coming to terms with her husband’s death, by becoming a stronger and more independent person, certainly counts as character growth. Her widowhood makes her a sympathetic character, and although her wealth, friends, and suitors might limit her sympathetic appeal, their presence also heightens her sense of loss. All of her unhappiness is due to the loss of her much loved husband, and cannot be attributed to other factors.
Learning to Hula powerfully evokes the sadness of losing a husband and father, and shows that moving on is difficult but possible. There are also reminders to enjoy life while you can. I did not enjoy the story, but I appreciated it. In classical Greek theatre, the tragedies were usually followed by a short, bawdy, “satyr play,” to lighten the mood. The epilogue of Learning to Hula is a nod in that direction, but I’m off to read something more cheerful to lighten my mood.