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REVIEW: Love Lessons by Heidi Cullinan

Kelly Davidson has waited what seems like forever to graduate high school and get out of his small-minded, small town. But when he arrives at Hope University, he quickly realizes finding his Prince Charming isn’t so easy. Everyone here is already out. In fact, Kelly could be the only virgin on campus.

Worst of all, he’s landed the charming, handsome, gay campus Casanova as a roommate, whose bed might as well be equipped with a revolving door.

Walter Lucas doesn’t believe in storybook love. Everyone is better off having as much fun as possible with as many people as possible…except his shy, sad little sack of a roommate is seriously screwing up his world view.

As Walter sets out to lure Kelly out of his shell, staying just friends is harder than he anticipated. He discovers love is a crash course in determination. To make the grade, he’ll have to finally show up for class…and overcome his own private fear that love was never meant to last.

Warning: This story contains lingering glances, milder than usual sexual content for this author, and a steamy dance-floor kiss. Story has no dairy or egg content, but may contain almonds.

Dear Ms. Cullinan,
Your books are an auto buy for me, so I was very eager to review this one. Unfortunately this book ended up being a mixed bag for me. While I really liked both characters, the initial setup of the story felt heavy handed and manipulative and I had to force myself to continue reading the story.

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The story begins with Walter trying to convince the Dean to allow him to continue living off campus alone. But Dean Williams is not having it; Walter cannot live alone because the university wants to take care of him in light of his tough family situation (we do not know yet what that situation is). Apparently that means sticking him in a dorm with a freshman even though Walter is a junior. The Board of Regents were even involved, as they discussed Walter’s situation and refused to let him live off campus. Now, I did not go to the college in the US, I only went to a graduate- level educational institution, and housing rules were not something that I was ever concerned with. I have friends, who did go to college here, however, and I read books and watch movies set in U.S. colleges, and this situation made me raise eyebrows right away, because the idea that college would not allow a junior student live off campus seemed weird to me. Now, of course I hesitate to make the statement that this cannot ever happen – I have no clue what is happening in every college in the United States. However, I can say that at the very least such set up requires an unusual suspension of disbelief.

I understand that this set up was required in order to get our characters together – Walter and Kelly end up as roommates, but as I mentioned above I wanted something less heavy- handed. It felt even heavier handed to me that openly gay students (especially shy freshman like Kelly) end up living in a dorm that is universally considered the most homophobic in college housing. Why would Dean Williams allow it? And why would all jocks be considered homophobic? Can’t at least some of them be regular students who are also gifted in sports? I thought the book was stereotyping the students. I was already imagining scenario of Kelly being bullied and Walter protecting him later on. Yeah, I was right. Again, this development felt heavy- handed and manipulative to me. At the very least there was no huge beating happening – I was grateful for that, but Kelly definitely suffered from subtle bullying unless Walter was with him. I just thought that the situation could have been easily avoided and when I have thoughts like this, I feel that author’s hand is more visible than I would like it to be.

But I forced myself to continue and when Walter and Kelly meet and become friends and eventually lovers I did not have to do much forcing to keep reading. Walter seemed like quite a jerk to me initially with him describing Dean Williams like this and casually throwing the remarks like “Fag Hag” to Kelly.:

Dean Stevens was one of those back-end-of-middle-age women who, while once lovely, had missed the memo that declared wrinkled cleavage gross, boldly wearing plunging necklines without any viable flesh to keep them from being black holes of eww. Though he tried not to look at her chest while she greeted him and ushered him back into her office, it drew his focus like a lighthouse. A scary lighthouse.

However, I really appreciated that Walter had never been a jerk to Kelly. I loved how while he was initially attracted, he was determined to be friends and helped him and protected him when he could. Walter obviously has plenty of issues and was a flawed character but I warmed up to him immensely when I saw how he treated Kelly. Granted, I can never understand why the character that is having a lot of casual sex in m/m romance is usually shown as having issues. Isn’t this okay for a young man (or a woman for that matter) in their early twenties just enjoy himself and have fun? Do not get me wrong, Walter’s issues seem to make sense , and him learning that true love is possible was a beautiful thing to watch, but I suppose I am getting tired of this trope and do not think it is true as often as the authors seem to write it.

Kelly was adorable with his love of Disney movies and eagerness to get rid of his virginity with the right person – I have no problem with the virgin characters and Kelly is a very memorable one. His journey is about taking control of his life, figuring out what he wants and learning how to get it. I thought Kelly had changed a lot by the end of the story and I loved his character arc. I really appreciated that the first sex scene between guys did not appear until about 60% into the story on my kindle and overall the story probably has three sex scenes. For these characters it seemed very appropriate, but if you are a reader who wants a lot of sex in your stories, this one is probably not for you.

For all that it took Walter a long time to have the courage to admit to himself that he wants to be more than friends with Kelly (a bit longer than it did for Kelly because he had more demons than Kelly to overcome), it worked really well that they became friends first. I enjoyed that for all their doubts they managed to communicate better than many couples I have read about: no, it was not a perfect communication, but they avoided silly misunderstandings and unnecessary miscommunications, and they were really good together:
“For a long time they stood there, embracing and breathing slowly. Eventually Kelly spoke. “ I don’t want to screw this up either. You’re the best friend I’ve ever had. You…you’re everything”
The words cut Walter open, both what he longed to hear and what he feared to hear at the same time. Everything about Kelly undid him, made him feel lost and found at the same time. He stroked Kelly’s hair, letting his thumb catch on his ear. “So what do we do now?”
“I have no idea.” Kelly shivered. “Maybe we start by heading back to your car and turn on the heater?”

I do want to talk about the portrayal of the women in this story – as some of you may know; it is one of my hot buttons in m/m romance. I will confess that description of Dean Williams and “fag hag” did not make me optimistic at the beginning of the story. However, I felt better as the story went along – flawed women were not demonized in my opinion and Kelly’s mom and Kelly’s friend Rose were pretty awesome. I was disappointed that even Walter’s best friend was not there for him when he needed her – it is as if more women in the story did not measure up to certain standard (whatever that standard was supposed to be) than the ones that did. However, as I said, at the end I thought that I was more or less ok – the writer at least tried to present various women in her story and did not make the caricatures out of the flawed ones.
Overall I liked the romance in the story, but I wished it was set up much better than it was. Grade C.

~Sirius

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Sirius

Sirius started reading books when she was four and reading and discussing books is still her favorite hobby. One of her very favorite gay romances is Tamara Allen’s Whistling in the Dark. In fact, she loves every book written by Tamara Allen. Amongst her other favorite romance writers are Ginn Hale, Nicole Kimberling, Josephine Myles, Taylor V. Donovan and many others. Sirius’ other favorite genres are scifi, mystery and Russian classics. Sirius also loves travelling, watching movies and long slow walks.

16 Comments

  1. Isobel Carr
    Aug 28, 2013 @ 09:32:13

    The housing thing isn’t odd to me at all. My school (small, private, liberal arts) only allowed you to live off campus if you were local and were living at home with your parents or if you got married (it was a women’s college, so no men were allowed to live in campus housing, though at least two women I know got away with their husbands secretly shacking up with them in the dorms).

  2. Sirius
    Aug 28, 2013 @ 09:40:35

    Ok that’s a surprise :). I mean review being out today a surprise. I cannot make a correction now in the review but please note that the book is available for preorder now, but it is out October 1. Also re : housing. I saw the entry on author’s blog that she used her college as the basis for some things happening and the housing was one of them. However for me the unusual suspension of disbelief problem still stands unfortunately.

  3. Carolyne
    Aug 28, 2013 @ 11:05:56

    @Sirius: We did have some specialty dorms on my campus where you might not have a choice in roommate, so I could squint and see that happening–but as Isobel says, there are schools with even stricter requirements.

    The description of the dean is very irritating to me, though, and I’d need to know that I’m hearing the character’s voice, not a “this is how we treat women in m/m” trope, and I’d want him to grow from that initial grossed-out dismissal of older people (women). I don’t mind at all if we readers are looking from outside the page at the character and thinking, “oh, he’s still so young” or, “oh, he still has a way to go as a person.”

    On the other hand, I think it’s made difficult for m/m authors to write in the voice of a character/historical era/etc. when there’s sometimes an expectation that any disdain for women is part of an overall m/m trend, rather than an insight into the particular character or a misogynistic society. It’s even more interesting to me when I find myself liking a character even when he’s trapped by attitudes he’s been immersed in. On the other other hand, maybe that means that this sort of “ew, gross, girls” insight is overused. On the other other other hand… Nope, I’m out of hands.

    I often like Heidi Cullinan’s writing, but I’ve read way too many college dramas lately. I won’t rule out the possibility of drifting over to this one some day, but probably not soon.

    I like the cover, though. The college romances seem to have some nice ones, with a mainstream YA/NA look to them. I’ve been burned out on headless torsos/torsoless heads for a while now.

  4. Patricia Eimer
    Aug 28, 2013 @ 11:35:20

    My university didn’t allow you to live off campus unless you were local. To be fair though they did have upper level student on-campus apartments so it wasn’t as bad as being stuck in a dorm for 4 years.

    And the cover’s beautiful but I don’t know if this one’s for me. I’m sort of sick of college dramas right now.

  5. Sunita
    Aug 28, 2013 @ 11:38:19

    There are still colleges that require students to live on campus, but at this point they’re the exception, not the rule, I believe, so I can see readers being pulled up by that requirement being treated as normal. And given colleges’ attention to diversity (and liability) issues these days, for a secular college to ask a gay student to live in a dorm with a reputation for homophobia seems really unlikely.

    @Carolyne: I found that description of the Dean really off-putting. It’s the readers’ introduction to her, and while I can easily imagine a college student thinking a middle-aged woman is unsexy, I’m surrounded by female deans and none of them dress to show off their cleavage, at least not while they’re in the office. It’s not just a way to describe a character POV, it’s describing a dress choice as fact. The choice to depict a middle-aged woman as someone who wants to project an image of sexual attractiveness while she interacts with 20-year-olds seemed odd and uncomfortable to me.

    ETA: Apparently the residency requirement is increasing, so I’m wrong that it’s decreasing (although I do know of a lot of SLACs that do not require it). From what I can read, it’s partly financial and partly because of the competition among schools to create an all-encompassing experience. I know that a lot of money goes toward
    high-end student facilities and housing these days, because it makes colleges more attractive and helps the rankings.

  6. cleo
    Aug 28, 2013 @ 12:06:45

    Your review confirms all of the reservations I had reading the excerpt. I’m a big Heidi Cullinan fan but I just wasn’t sure about it. Small private colleges in the US make all sorts of crazy rules, so I can buy the no off campus housing thing but the whole set up seems a bit far fetched. The characterization of the dean bugged me.

    Honestly, the whole excerpt bugged me, although I can’t exactly explain why. I think a lot of is that NA just isn’t for me. Since I work in higher ed it’s not really an escape from my reality and I have trouble suspending disbelief. The couple NAs that I have liked were m/m so I thought this might work, but yeah, no. Probably just not my genre.

  7. hapax
    Aug 28, 2013 @ 13:12:20

    I like Heidi Cullinan a lot, but that excerpt would have been a DNF moment for me.

    I know better than to confuse the character’s voice for the author’s opinions, but honestly? I don’t want to spend any time in the head of a character with such a nasty, misogynistic mind (how DARE that old hag not present — or hide — her own body to conform to his tastes!) If he’s still so bigoted and shallow by the age of twenty or so, I’m not going to believe that Tru Luv is enough to change him.

  8. Sirius
    Aug 28, 2013 @ 13:27:14

    Housing – good to learn it was more spread out than I thought. Thanks guys.
    Carolyne, it had been few months since I wrote this review but as far as I remember he never does grow out of it – or maybe he does but that never mentioned later on. As I mentioned I do not think this is overall the worst portrayal of women in m/m story, because I certainly read much worse. I mean yes there is that awful description but there are different women in the story and they are not evil. However I did feel that I was not very happy either. I felt
    like standards set up for women were much higher tban for men if

    makes sense. Tiny spoiler to follow – Walter’s best friend does not
    come through for him even though he always always helped her was there for her in the time of crisis. Why not!

  9. Sirius
    Aug 28, 2013 @ 13:32:35

    Continue from previous comment – she was too into her wedding and just could not spare the moment even though Walter always had been for her when she needed him. And we get a remark from somebody else that basically most women fall victims to wedding industry or something like that. Also two women in his family arr basically portrayed as the source of constant problems for him.

  10. Sirius
    Aug 28, 2013 @ 13:37:04

    Hapax I now remember something else that bothered me – Walter never portrayed as a jerk – nobody called him on those attitudes and honestly it felt like it was just there. And he treated female students nicely – when he was not calling them Fag Hag anyway. And he was always nice to Kelly – always. This is where my impression comes from that story did not ever intend me to see him as a jerk.

  11. Sirius
    Aug 28, 2013 @ 13:42:00

    Cleo I usually really like her stuff too. This one was a very mixed one for me though. Honestly I felt like college was the main villain of the piece – if you decide to read it you will see it I am pretty sure. It started with set up and another thing which happened in the story. I guess it goes in line with Kelly loving Disney cartoons – villain is just ad stereotyped and cartoonish. I mean all students who do well in sports just must be homophobes really?

  12. cleo
    Aug 28, 2013 @ 14:37:49

    @Sirius: I got the “college as villain” vibe from the excerpt – not to get too spoilery, but does the college do something bad to Walter’s favorite prof? I felt like he was being set up for betrayal.

    I guess after reading several jock/nerd pairings in m/m NAs, maybe one with only bad jocks is kind of refreshing? JK.

  13. Sirius
    Aug 28, 2013 @ 22:08:44

    @cleo: Yep. I have read some sweet jock/nerd romances too, yes. Have you read “Social skills” by Sara Alva? Really liked that one.

    I think what disheartened me that we do not know even know those characters, the only thing we know is that dorm is considered homophobic and jocks live there, pretty much. I hope I remember it correctly. I mean, I may have misremembered the details, but I am pretty sure there was no fleshed out characters in that dorm – all that I remember is that they engaged in subtle bullying of Kelly, but did nothing when Walter was with him.

  14. cleo
    Aug 28, 2013 @ 22:16:34

    @Sirius: I just read Social Skills a couple weeks ago. It kind of surprised me – at one point I hated, hated the jock hero (sorry, bad with names), but I ended up really rooting for them to get together and stay together. I’m not sure I completely buy the way the nerd’s anxiety was handled, but I enjoyed it a lot. I really liked seeing them figure out how to interact with their friends as a couple.

    I assume you’ve read Frat Boy and Toppy and Love, Hypothetically by Anne Tenino? Those are probably my faves.

  15. Sirius
    Aug 29, 2013 @ 13:35:42

    Cleo yep I have read Anne Tenino’s books.

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