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REVIEW: A Private Gentleman by Heidi Cullinan

(This one is addressed to readers, not the author) Dear Readers:

As we all know, it’s impossible to be objective about a review. And this is fine, as long as we can be honest about the sources of our lack of objectivity, if we know them. This book has flaws, even major flaws that have been pointed out to me by other really astute readers, and I will talk about these flaws. But I was and am utterly unable to be aware of these flaws as I read this book, no matter how many times I read it — and I’ve read it at least three times by now. This book ripped my heart out, stomped all over it, put it back, then did it again, only harder.

A Private Gentleman by Heidi CullinanI need plot summary to explain my particular and specific non-objectivity: The story is set at some point during Victoria’s reign — gas lighting and indoor plumbing exist, for example. Lord George Albert Westin, or Wes to his very few friends, is the second son of a very powerful Marquess, painfully shy, reclusive, a brilliant botanist, completely gay, a stammerer, and addicted to heroin that was first prescribed to him by a doctor to control his panic attacks. Michael Vallant is a first class whore, beautiful, and the victim of rape at the age of twelve by none other than Wes’s father. I am giving nothing away by saying this because it’s all revealed very early in the story.

My utter lack of objectively arises from the fact that I was sent the ARC of this book a week after the Penn State/Sandusky story broke. The situation at Penn State broke my heart and made me furious, in turn/together. So the first time I read this book, all I could think of was Sandusky’s victims, who seem to have been lost in the circus of all the other “more important” players of the “scandal.” The most recent time I read this book (for this review) was about two weeks after a very close friend told me about how their heroin addiction destroyed their life and how they’ve struggled to piece it back together. So I have no ability to separate from this book. I haven’t the slightest hope of viewing it with anything close to objectivity or even impartiality. This book is real people to me, desperately vulnerable people and/or people I care about deeply.

This book, if you couldn’t tell, is utterly over the top. Everything that happens, every character, every plot point, every sentence, is designed specifically to rip your heart out and stomp on it. Being the glutton I am, I love this. I’m a Romantic (Big-R, literary movement Romantic) at heart, as well as a romantic (small-R, people falling in love romantic), so I go for the grand gestures, always have. I love Over The Top. This book, therefore, utterly worked for me. But I know that’s what exasperated some of my astute reader friends who read it.

For instance, the stock characters: the villain (Wes’s father) is evil incarnate. He’s not like Sandusky was — everyone’s best friend and buddy. Daventry is only after power. You get the impression he isn’t even really a pedophile; rather, he just gets off on the utter power of “owning” a boy and doing exactly what he wants with him. He’s evil and horrible and that’s the point. Then there’s the pimp with the heart of gold: Michael’s mother (an aging courtesan) sold Michael to Wes’s father when Michael was 12. After the week with Daventry was over, Michael ran away and was saved by Rodger, who was 16 at the time and — of course — a master thief and pimp. Rodger’s basically controlled everything about Michael’s life since then, with Michael’s full permission. He knows all, sees all, controls all. But he loves Michael and wants what’s best for him. And there’s also Penelope Brannigan, the American “social worker” (an anachronistic term I’m using here just to make a point) with the horrible past that’s the reason she’s trying to save the world, one addict at a time.

While these characters are completely from Stock Central, and therefore annoy other readers, they completely worked for me because of their layers. Yes, they’re stock, but stock characters exist for a reason, and really, any representation of a pimp has become a stock representation, ditto a social worker with tragedy in her past that spurs her to do her good work. Cullinan doesn’t leave them at that, though. Rodger comes to realize his mistakes in dealing with Michael and the interaction between them is so well done. Penelope helps Wes overcome his addiction and control his stutter, but at cost to herself. And honestly, people with Over The Top issues like this do actually exist in real life. I know a surprising number of them, in fact. So it doesn’t actually seem over the top to me.

However, the ONE issue I had with this book was with Wes’s brother: if any character was cardboard, it was him, parroting their father’s estimation of Wes, focused on his son as “the heir,” not as a boy. That did bother me and seemed too OTT, even for this book. His about-face acceptance of the relationship between Wes and Michael at the end of the story (remember, this is a historical, so “sodomy” is a crime, etc.) bothered other readers I talked with, but I bought it, considering the specific circumstances (that are spoilerish so I will comment no more).

But really, the love story between Wes and Michael is strong enough that it allows me to say words which might seem unbelievable, but here I go: addiction and child rape aside, this book is about Wes and Michael, two very damaged souls, finding each other and becoming both weaker and stronger together. As always, Cullinan delivers the goods (for me). For instance, Wes (whom Michael calls and thinks of as Albert) is trying to convince Michael to wear his much-needed glasses:

Albert only smiled wryly and held out the spectacles, dangling them from his fingers. “Wh-Wh-Why will you n-not wear them? You p-p-prefer not to see?”

Michael’s cock was pounding as hard as his pulse now, and as he knew neither would get release, he lost his temper. “My lord, I make my living by my looks. How many whores have you met with glasses thicker than most windowpanes?”

He doubted he’d have been able to read Albert’s face even if he could see it. It made him angry, and he would have stormed out, but he couldn’t leave his glasses. He’d fallen asleep before he’d finished the Dickens.

“Wh-Wh-Why d-did you ask m-m-me to k-k-kiss you?” Albert asked at last.

“Because you haven’t kissed me all week,” Michael shot back.

Albert’s reply was measured, careful. “You w-w-wanted me to?”

“Yes.” Michael folded his arms over his chest. “I did.”

Albert took a step forward, his blurry form coming into partial focus. “H-How m-many c-clients h-have y-you m-met with s-s-s-such a c-c-clumsy st-st-ststammer?”

Heat raced up Michael’s cheeks. “You’re different,” he whispered.

“S-S-So are you,” Albert whispered back.

Don’t fall in love with him. Rodger’s words rose up in faint echo, a last warning.

Too late, Michael admitted, frozen in place as Albert lifted Michael’s glasses and arranged them carefully on his face.

The impetus for the story is that Wes and Michael meet by accident at a not-quite-ton party. Michael is there to find tricks (which in retrospect seems odd, considering how much he stays at the brothel during the rest of the book), but is instead being harassed by a rejected customer; Wes is there to see a rare orchid (he’s a botanist) but is unable to control his social anxiety enough to ask his hostess to see it. Wes and Michael are trapped together by Michael’s irate former customer and “talk” to each other on Wes’s notepad, allowing them to have a conversation without consideration for Wes’s stammer. They have a sexual encounter which sends Michael into an unaccountable tailspin of flashbacks to his abuse at the hands of Wes’s father. Unable to earn his keep anymore, Michael asks Rodger to find Wes, hoping that another encounter with Wes will fix him (Michael), just as the first one messed him up. It doesn’t, but after Michael’s panic attack, Wes buys a month of Michael’s time, during which they spend every afternoon together, learning each other, falling in love, and struggling with what life has thrown them.

Cullinan’s writing is brilliant, as usual. Michael and Wes are amazing characters; their relationship is perfect for them. They don’t cure each other. There’s no insta-cure in this book for heroin addiction or for PTSD flashbacks to child sex abuse. But their love for each other makes them want to try to be better, however much they stumble along the way. But I also love how the characters don’t just strengthen each other — they weaken each other as well; their relationship makes things worse for them as well as better. It’s brilliantly done.

Once again, I feel like my review doesn’t begin to do justice to the book. Honestly, yes, the book is over the top and if that’s not your thing as a reader, then this book will NOT work for you. But, you know what, every now and then I’m confronted with the fact that some people’s lives are like this: maybe none of Sandusky’s victims will end up with a recovering heroin addict for a partner, but both deserve happiness just as much as anyone else (except Sandusky himself, of course). Sometimes the love story should be about the victims, the non-Alphas, the ones who are left behind, the ones who aren’t strong — but of course, are the strongest of us all. That is this book. And I adored it.

Grade: B+ (Recommended Read for February)

Best regards,
-Sarah

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Sarah F. is a literary critic, a college professor, and an avid reader of romance -- and is thrilled that these are no longer mutually exclusive. Her academic specialization is Romantic-era British women novelists, especially Jane Austen, but she is contributing to the exciting re-visioning of academic criticism of popular romance fiction. Sarah is a contributor to the academic blog about romance, Teach Me Tonight, the winner of the 2008-2009 RWA Academic Research Grant, and the founder and President of the International Association of the Study of Popular Romance (IASPR). Sarah mainly reviews BDSM romance and gay male romance and hopes to be able to beat her TBR pile into submission when she has time to think. Sarah teaches at Fayetteville State University, NC.

18 Comments

  1. Ruthie
    Apr 10, 2012 @ 10:29:26

    Wonderful review, Sarah. Thanks for sharing your passion with us here. I think sometimes we lose sight of it in the pursuit of objectivity, but passion is what draws me to books, what immerses me in them, and what leaves me satisfied with or dissatisfied with them in the end. It frustrated me enormously when I studied literature in college and graduate school that discussion of passion — of the intense feelings novels provoke — had to be checked at the classroom door. If we can’t talk about romance novels with our non-objective, we’re-just-humans views on our sleeves, yeesh, what can we talk about that way?

    This sounds like an interesting one, and I’m a sucker for a stammering hero. I’ve even written my own. ;-)

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  2. Sirius
    Apr 10, 2012 @ 11:01:41

    I actually really loved this book too and did not see the flaws, so I totally understand. I mean, yes Wes’ brother bothered me, for some reason his easy acceptance bothered me more than his initial parroting of the father – I found it very realistic in a sense – why would he not parrot his father if this is what he was taught. Acceptance of their relationship though felt way way too easy, although as you said, due to specific circumstances, I could at least wrap my head around it. Everything else though – absolutely loved. Thanks for the review.

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  3. Jane
    Apr 10, 2012 @ 11:22:15

    @Ruthie: But I also think it is important to acknowledge the lack of objectivity in making a recommendation because those reading a review might not understand or approach the book with the same passion or the same set of circumstances which certainly conflated to bring about Sarah’s strong reaction to it. For instance, I like over the top dramatic works but Heidi Cullinan’s prose has never worked for me. The prose reminds me of old skool purple passion works. Maybe like the Rosemary Rogers of m/m.

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  4. Ruthie
    Apr 10, 2012 @ 11:30:14

    @Jane: True. I like both that Sarah was passionate and that she acknowledged her lack of objectivity. I want to have it both ways. :)

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  5. Sunita
    Apr 10, 2012 @ 12:08:38

    @Ruthie: But you can have it both ways. I find the opposition of passion and objectivity here to be quite strange. There is a book I absolutely love, and yet I see its flaws very clearly. Sure, I love the book in spite of its flaws, but the fact that they weren’t mitigated infuriates me (it’s an example of how bad editing diminishes the potential of a great book). It would be even better if it had had a top-notch editor, and I think the book and the author were hurt by that absence. So when I reread the book, it reminds me of how important good editing is, and I get mad all over again. So yeah, I’m passionate about both the book and its flaws.

    I make a distinction between “stock characters” and “archetypes.” There’s certainly an overlap, but for me archetypes are made interesting by their individuality and the author’s interpretation. For example, a Trickster is an archetype, but how s/he appears will vary across interpretations. A stock character is someone the reader immediately recognizes; the nuances don’t have to be filled in because the reader does it herself. So when I use the term “stock character,” it’s a criticism, not a description.

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  6. Treasure
    Apr 10, 2012 @ 13:46:26

    I have to admit to very mixed feelings about this book, and maybe that’s a good thing. I loved the relationship between Wes and Michael, the slow formation, loved the bit with the glasses, and I do have a weakness for slightly flawed hero’s. I did think the addiction story line rang true, at least for what I know of the time period. I do wish some of the stock characters had been more fleshed out, the ending seemed rushed to me with all the plot lines tied up a little too neatly anbd quickly.

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  7. KKJ
    Apr 10, 2012 @ 14:30:00

    This book ripped my heart out, stomped all over it, put it back, then did it again, only harder.

    Heidi Cullinan’s books do this to me EVERY TIME. Not just every book – EVERY TIME I READ THEM, which is a lot. I can’t think of any other characters in romance – not just m/m – that are as compelling and memorable as hers. Even if you’re like Jane and think her prose on the purplish side, these are books you think about long after you’ve finished reading. Especially this one.

    The “stock character” argument is intriguing. I think that Cullinan goes sooooo deep inside her main characters that it’s inevitable that supporting players might seem static by comparison.

    I agree that the older brother is too convenient for the plot. But I disagree that the Evil Father is shallow or formulaic – he represents not just Power, but Untouchable Power. He’s a peer, so he’s above the law, in his own eyes and in everyone else’s. Even more so than a modern-day politician or football coach, Wes’s father has no restraints – morally, ethically or legally. The only thing that might restrain him is the one thing his victims fear even more: publicity. Yes, it’s probably over-the-top, but I’ve read literally hundreds of historicals, and I’ve yet to see the issue of the Untouchable Peer addressed in such a raw manner.

    I also read this from the perspective of someone with a social anxiety disorder as well – not as severe as Wes’s, thank god, but enough that the depictions of his physical reactions to crowds made me squirm in sympathy. From the blurb, I never expected that aspect of the plot to go so far as the “halfway house” and the opium dens, but damn, what a ride. And she did it without the Magical Orgasm Cure!

    As you can tell, I’m in Sarah’s camp with being passionate about Heidi’s books, so I don’t even notice things that might drive me batshit crazy with other authors. I’m not seeing the big editing flaws that Sunita might. But whatever, I DON’T WANT TO KNOW, I’m too busy re-reading this to hear you.

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  8. HollyY
    Apr 10, 2012 @ 14:31:17

    I absolutely loved this book and really didn’t have any of the negative reactions to it that other readers mentioned. It was an emotional rollercoaster in the best way possible. I loved the characters for both their strengths and their flaws. It was a really satisfying read!

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  9. Annabeth Albert
    Apr 10, 2012 @ 18:59:04

    I loved this book. LOVED. I see a tremendous evolution in Cullinan’s writing. Nowhere Ranch didn’t work for me on a number of levels and Special Delivery was okay, but I didn’t absolutely adore it the way some have. But I have loved Dance With Me and A Private Gentleman with an absolute passion. I think Cullinan is at her best when she goes super deep on the emotion and angst. I didn’t see the editing issues here that some have noted. It seemed on par with other Samhain titles–which is leagues above what others publishing m/m romances do.

    I think this book works for readers who really connect with angst driven reads, but might not work as well for those for whom a crisp pace and external conflict are more important. She does take a lot of time to let the romance develop slowly, really showing the trust and falling-in-love in a beautiful way. But if you need action-action-action, I can see where it might not work as well.

    But for me it was perfect. Absolutely keeper shelf.

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  10. Kaetrin
    Apr 10, 2012 @ 19:53:12

    @Sunita:
    When you said:

    There is a book I absolutely love, and yet I see its flaws very clearly.

    were you referring to A Private Gentleman or another book (I thought another but then the later comments made me wonder if I misundersood).

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  11. Merrian
    Apr 10, 2012 @ 20:55:45

    This is the week my life has taken a radically different course and so I put aside A Private Gentleman because I didn’t want to throw away the book by not reading it with the intensity I think it needs. Reading the review and comments I am looking forward to getting back to it.

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  12. Sunita
    Apr 10, 2012 @ 21:24:24

    @Kaetrin: Yes, I was referring to a different book and using editing as an example of something that will result in a flawed book.

    @KKJ: I would never want to quash your enjoyment of a beloved book! But while you make a compelling argument for the character as an Untouchable Peer, I would have had a much easier time buying him as such had he been ensconced in a County stately home, or interested only in society, rather than involved in and committed to Parliamentary politics. Someone with political aspirations, Marquess or not, was beholden to any number of social equals and social inferiors to advance. The idea that he would be entirely unrestrained, given the ambitions with which he was endowed, rings false to me.

    He also should have been a far more interesting person, given that background. Instead, he was a common-garden psycho pedophile.

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  13. Sirius
    Apr 10, 2012 @ 21:38:55

    @Annabeth Albert: It can also work for the readers who like both – I can be sold by long angsty read or action packed story :). I loved loved how slow she went with their relationship. While I can be more forgiving of some version of Insta!Love in action packed story, I still want some kind of development and not, I love you forever since the first time I saw you kind of thing. I also really loved that she made them both flawed – I much prefer them flawed.

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  14. Annabeth Albert
    Apr 11, 2012 @ 02:49:52

    Just realized why the stock character criticisms don’t really ring true for my personal reading experience. For me, I didn’t need the father to be nuanced or have more depth. He’s a pedophile driven by a need for control with absolutely no remorse. I don’t want to have any tinge of sorrow or understanding for him. I have this issue with some Romantic Suspense titles that delve too deeply into the Villain’s head. I’m interested in the angst and the defeat of the Villain, but I really don’t care to see what makes them tick or what happened to make them that way. I don’t like feeling sympathy, especially for pedophiles and child killers. The fact that the father was the rapist was all I really needed. Seeing how Albert & Matthew defeated their mutual demons was what made the book for me.

    I totally get that other readers might want more from the secondary characters or might care to see what makes them tick. I did kind of want a secondary romance for the do-good lady, but Cullinan doesn’t really do that. I thought the backstory for her was fairly well fleshed out. She could have had more personal flaws, but she worked for me.

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  15. cleo
    Apr 11, 2012 @ 05:43:21

    “Sometimes the love story should be about the victims, the non-Alphas, the ones who are left behind, the ones who aren’t strong — but of course, are the strongest of us all” – beautifully put Sarah. As a victim / survivor of abuse, I absolutely agree, although I’m also extremely cautious and picky about the books I read that feature survivors of sexual abuse. I may try this one – it sounds good and I do like books where love helps the characters be both stronger and more vulnerable (without the magical orgasm cure).

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  16. orannia
    Apr 12, 2012 @ 18:02:35

    Wonderful review Sarah!

    But I was and am utterly unable to be aware of these flaws as I read this book, no matter how many times I read it — and I’ve read it at least three times by now.

    I love it when a book does that! So going on my TBR list. I’m still ever so glad I read your review and took a chance on Heidi Cullinan’s Special Delivery. Definitely a favourite author :)

    I think this book works for readers who really connect with angst driven reads…

    *raises hand* That would be me. And I think it’s such books that allow me to ignore the flaws – I get so caught up in the angst :)

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