REVIEW: Dance With Me by Heidi Cullinan
Dear Ms. Cullinan
I’m going to apologize up-front that this review will not do justice to this book. I don’t think anything can do justice to this book except reading it AGAIN. It’s just…brilliant. Not without flaws, but brilliant.
The book starts with two alternating prologues. One is the night Laurence “Laurie” Parker is thrown out of a big (traditional) international ballroom dance competition because he dances in the “follower” role with his male partner (traditional ballroom is, of course, strictly heterosexual). (Now, if we’re going to be picky, I had issues with this. I can’t believe that Laurie and his partner would be able to fool everyone up until that point as they did. Surely they’d have to have qualified even to be allowed into the competition? And is ballroom done like figure skating, one couple at a time? I got the impression that it wasn’t. Anyway…) The other is the night Ed Maurer is injured playing semi-pro football, injured so badly he’ll never play again. These are the two events that haunt the rest of the book and haunt Laurie and Ed in ways they’re still trying to recover from years later.
Ed and Laurie meet (years after their downfalls) as antagonists at a community center. Laurie is playing loud music for his aerobics class that is mistakenly being piped through into the weight room, where Ed is trying to run a class. Ed tells Laurie he’ll do anything if he just stops the music for one night. Laurie agrees and asks Ed to help him during a ballroom dance class he’s running at his dance studio. Much to Laurie’s surprise, Ed agrees. He’s done some ballroom dance as physical therapy for his neck injury and enjoys it. They fall in love over dance.
There’s MUCH more to the book, of course. Laurie dreams up a way to save the community center they both volunteer at, only to realize that he can’t really save it by himself. Laurie deals with his mother, who wants him to recapture the glory of his professional dancing career. Ed deals with the chronic and sometimes acute pain of his neck injury, as well as getting laid off from his crappy office job. But really, the story is about two men falling in love and finding that they work better together than apart. And they do. The love between them is palpable, and that’s one of the things I loved about the book so much: we really see the characters falling in love slowly (the books takes place over about nine months or so) and we really see them as better together than apart.
I’ve been trying to describe this book to people and all I can come up with is that it reads like life. Laurie’s fucked up relationship with dance is never really explained, mostly because it’s just not that simple. He adored performing; his mother pushed him into it. He’s brilliant at it, having captured every accolade and honor out there; he’s terrified to do it now. No, he’s terrified to perform; except he isn’t. His motivation is sometimes a little sketchy but I never get the impression it’s because you don’t have complete control of your characters, but rather because Laurie himself doesn’t know how he feels about dancing and performing and after a while, it doesn’t matter, because all he cares about Ed. Although not in a creepy, obsessive, co-dependent way. Just that Ed is his top priority and everything else pales in comparison.
Ed’s relationship with his pain is better mapped out. And this might come from the fact that YOU have chronic pain (I’ve dithered about mentioning it in this review, but it’s immediately available to anyone who reads your blog, so felt it was relevant). I could feel the authenticity of Ed’s experiences, because I’m sure you’ve gone through similar realizations yourself, even though in the book they were uniquely Ed’s and not you rewriting yourself into Ed. But even that isn’t closed narratively, tied up in a neat little bow at the end. Ed has chronic pain. Ed will always have chronic pain. Part of the point of the book was Ed dealing with that and the significant psychological repercussions. Except you made very obvious that one don’t just deal with it, get over it, and get on with one’s life. Chronic pain is a constant cycle of acceptance/rejection, dealing with it/avoiding it. So even Ed’s big realization at the end…isn’t. Is something that he (and Laurie) will have to renew again and again.
But anyway, the book feels like life. Stuff happens and we deal with it. It’s connected with what comes before and with what comes after, because sometimes it just is, because life is like that. But it’s not necessarily immediately obvious how it connects. No one is cured at the end of the book: Laurie still refuses to perform…except when he agrees. Ed’s still in pain and accepts it…except when he’s angry about it. And that’s…life, rather than bad writing. I’ve read other reviewers and readers saying that this read instead like episodic writing and bad pacing. I get why people might feel that, but I think it’s part of the atmosphere of the story itself.
One problem I did have that felt more like bad writing than life: Laurie tells Ed about his Toronto experience when Ed’s so drunk that he doesn’t remember. We’re never told one way or another whether Laurie ever tells Ed again and that bothers me. It’s a loose end, and I could understand Laurie’s decision one way or another whether to tell Ed again, but I would like to have known. (Another loose end: the ending felt rushed. I loved the emotion of it, but still can’t quite get a handle on Ed’s specific motivations going into the proposal scene.)
But, more than anything else, I fell in love with Ed and Laurie. They’re amazingly full and real characters. They’ve got quirks that felt like…real people, not like characters with quirks to make them cute and lovable.
And I fell in love with the sheer beauty of the writing:
Ed watches Laurie dance in the local performance of The Nutcracker:
At first, Ed didn’t recognize him. He came out on the arm of a ballerina who was wearing a seriously intense tutu, but Laurie had his hair slicked back and something around his eyes — liner, but glitter too. He wore all silver, and his costume was much simpler than his partner’s, but he glistened in the stage lights. And oh, yeah, he was wearing tights. His muscular legs were defined by the smooth white silk, and the bulge in his crotch was like a magnet to Ed’s eye. God.
And then Laurie was gone again. Ed sat through parade after parade of other people’s kids dancing to all different kinds of music in a rainbow array of costumes, and each time they came out, he was disappointed they weren’t Laurie. But just when he was about to give up hope, there Laurie was with the tutu lady again. He mostly, to Ed’s disappointment, propped her up while she did all manner of tricky dances. It was nice, but he wanted to see Laurie move. He supposed this was it, and he tried to enjoy it to its fullest, but mostly he just felt disappointed.
But then the tutu lady left, and Laurie remained. And he danced.
He was beautiful.
Ed couldn’t describe what Laurie was doing — he barely understood. Leaping. Arcing. He’d move his arms, and slide his leg up his other leg, and he’d kick and leap again. Ed didn’t know what it was. He just knew it was…beautiful. It was like watching light. It was like… God, he kept stuttering over it, and it made him stare all the harder, trying to figure it out. It was like Laurie was finding something inside Ed and pulling it out. And it wasn’t all, or even much, that it was Laurie and that Ed was attracted to him. It was a lot more than that. He’d have been moved by this even if he’d never met the man. As Laurie leaped and turned and kicked kind of all at once, and the audience gasped in wonder, something in Ed opened like a lotus, and he knew.
It was that Laurie was beautiful. It was that Laurie was male, and he was beautiful, and when he danced, he made male beauty come alive. Watching him dance was moving Ed because he’d never really seen anybody do that, and he hadn’t known it was something he yearned for until he saw it. Laurie wasn’t just good. Laurie was a fucking artist. As far as Ed was concerned, he was a legend.
And I’ve kissed him. A soft, startled thrill rushed through Ed, the kind he hadn’t had since he was twelve.
I’ve kissed him, and I might just kiss him again.
And then, without warning, Laurie fell.
This scene just…eviscerated me. I can’t stop thinking about it. Ed is a gay man who’s perfectly comfortable being gay and this seems to me the essence of his sexuality, right there. He just finds men…beautiful. And he sees it in Laurie when he dances. And there’s scene after scene after SCENE of this beautiful, perfect, truthful, honest writing. I can’t begin to quote them all, but I was blown away by each and every one: gorgeous because of the writing, but also because of how deeply each one gets into both characters.
This book is also so very honest. This is the “it’s like life” thing coming back again. Nothing’s romanticized. The sex is SO fucking hot because it’s REAL. Here’s Laurie after he and Ed have sex the first time (and despite the excerpt here, it’s so wonderful to see a gay couple for whom anal sex is not the apotheosis of sex):
Laurie lay there, feeling the relief and the loss at the same time as Ed pulled out, lay with his palms pressed to the quilt, to Ed’s quilt, lay in the sticky mess of his own semen as the hot fire of his backside, swollen and still open, leaked lube. This was the part he had resented, he remembered now. The mess. The slight squickiness of sex, the sometimes serious squickiness. The awkward part where everyone cleaned up, where he’d stand and find himself involuntarily expelling the air that had gone in with his partner’s cock and then, inevitably, had to come back out. His first time with anal sex had seen him padding across the plush carpet of another dancer’s bedroom floor, face flaming as he farted his way to the toilet. This was the messy part of sex, and it was, he admitted, the reason he’d worked to avoid it.
Except he didn’t care about it so much as he lay there now. He felt the pressure inside him, but he barely glanced to see where Ed was before he let the air out with a soft pop. His face still flamed, but he was so sated he couldn’t do much else.
I mean, yes, that’s gross, but it’s real, it’s true, and it’s a far cry from the romanticized, fantasy anal sex in m/m romance we usually see. In another scene, Ed rims Laurie, and Laurie doesn’t want to kiss him after — yes, utterly illogical, maybe, but so fucking REAL, I just loved it.
And that doesn’t even begin to touch the dance imagery used throughout this book. Laurie and Ed dance the tango together and it’s just utterly beautiful:
He was still nervous, though, and he held Ed’s hand all the way out to the studio. He wasn’t sure why, exactly, he was doing this. He thought it might be to show up his father, to make him watch his big burly football player dance. He thought he might be thumbing his nose at his mother as well. He was too scared to be bragging, but he felt some of that too, all the same.
When the others settled along the far wall and he and Ed went out onto the floor together, however, he realized that mostly he was simply out of sorts and wanted, right now, to dance with his partner.
He’d cued up a tango, and after a whispered suggestion to Ed, he simply let go and followed. He heard their audience’s gasps—he’d urged a very showy start—but after that, all he heard was the music. All he felt was the beating of his heart and the heat of Ed’s body, the power behind his embrace.
All he knew was the dance.
Only four people watched, but Laurie was glad. When he’d gone down in flames in Toronto, it had been such a mighty, incredible fall, but somehow he knew even a slight tumble now would bruise him to the bone. He had no ego left to cage him, no grit or anger at the world, no arrogance to blind him, not anymore. Even this, dancing for his parents, for Oliver and for Christopher, felt too much, too loud, too dangerous, and the fear pushed on him with every step.
But with every step Ed was there to catch him. Ed led him, Ed bore him up, and no matter how quick the turn or steep the slide, Ed always brought him home.
When the song finished, for a second there was only silence, and Laurie clung to Ed, who clung right back. Then Oliver started to clap, and then Christopher, and then they all were. “Amazing,” Oliver said, and Laurie dared to look at them. They were all wide-eyed. They were all moved. Even his mother.
He wasn’t sure if that made him feel better or not.
The natural partnering of dance obviously works well in romance, but you make it more than that, different, bigger, and so much a part of Laurie’s way of thinking it makes him utterly real.
Part of the reason I apologized at the beginning of this review is because I knew I’d never be able to cover everything in this review. The book is just…too big. Not long (although at 240 pages, it is that, too), but just…wide-ranging. Like life (she repeats). Another review might give the book a B-/C+ and mention utterly different things and I would actually probably agree with everything it said. But because there’s so much MORE to the book, the good stuff far outweighed the potential bad stuff for me.
I *will* say, though, that for me Dance With Me has improved on rereads. First read through, I felt the book was a solid B. Second read through, it was a B+, pushing into A-. Third read through (and this is FULL read throughs, not just hopping back and forth), I want to give it an A, but know I can’t because what about the first impression B? I recently said on Twitter that it’s a book I’d take with me to a year’s deployment in Iraq if I could only take five books with me, because it just gets better every time I reread it (which is not usual for me — usually books get more annoying, not more sublime). Every time I reread it, I wasn’t just able to relive the good parts, I was getting MORE out of it. There’s one major realization scene that totally worked for me on the first read, made no sense on the second read (seriously? HOW did it do that?), and fit well but not amazingly on the third read. But I think that’s just the marker of a great book. Or, at least, it is for me.