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.
I 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)