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Goodreads Reviews: Love Lessons by Heidi Cullinan

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Love doesn’t come with a syllabus. 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.

The Case of Tangled v. Fight Club

This book was yet another reminder of why Heidi Cullinan is one of my favorite M/M authors. I read it right after reading Special Delivery, which is deliciously filthy, so I was a bit worried by the college setting and the “warning” that Love Lessons would be less, shall we say, sexplicit, than her other books. The anxiety ramped up a bit during the opening chapters because of the rom/com friendly set-up: shy, freshman virgin is forced to room with the “campus Casanova,” which struck me as something far more likely to happen in a movie than reality.

It’s pretty easy to imagine a quite generic plotline springing from that set up, but that’s not what we got here. The book surprised me over and over again, never going quite where I predicted. Far more than I expected, this is a story about family. Americans hold to a cherished myth of college as a/the major period of self-discovery, more personal than professional, with emphasis on the self. Families, if they appear at all, tend to be treated as encumbrances to shucked off in the pursuit of self-fulfillment. We rarely see stories that take family obligations seriously, whether they are healthy or destructive.

To that end, the raunchy "virgin meets Casanova" tale is a non-starter. As the book unfolds, you come to realize that the crucial backstory is not the (insert a number) dozen men Walter Lucas has seduced since he got to Hope College, but the two years he took off before he even started. We only start to appreciate that after he goes home for Thanksgiving:

“Mom? What’s wrong?”

“Nothing,” she said, her voice very full of something. Yearning, mostly, if he had to guess, and loneliness. As usual, it tore at Walter’s heart. Especially as she added, “I shouldn’t bother you with my problems.”

She said this almost petulantly, as if she knew they were the right words but hated them for being so. Those were Walter’s cues to countermand her, to assure her that no, he wanted to hear why she was upset. It was a game they’d played for a long time, a game many people had tried to get him to stop playing, but he’d never been able to successfully manage it….

He didn’t want Kelly to see his mom in one of her fits. If Walter wasn’t supposed to hear what was bothering her, then she should keep it to herself. Otherwise she should just tell him because she didn’t care if she upset him or not. She shouldn’t make him give her permission to ruin his day with whatever had upset her this time.

I’ve seen books and movies try, but I’ve never seen one succeed this well at capturing an authentically soul-sucking holiday. The raw shame of it, the guilt towards his younger sister who’s stuck at home while he’s at college, the mixture of guilt and bitterness towards his mother, the exhaustion, the helplessness when nothing he does helps, the resentment and hostility that others might pity him, and the sense that holidays like Thanksgiving are a kind of cosmic sick joke.

In contrast, Kelly’s family feels like a millennial Norman Rockwell, with the Scrabble games and the vegan holiday dinner. In the face of their wholesomeness, there is a huge temptation to treat Walter as the conventional tragi-boy in need of rescue by the good-hearted Davidsons. It makes for an uplifting, Disney-ready story, but yet it’s so condescending and judgmental. But as always, Cullinan avoids the easy route, and her character is far too large a presence to be boxed into anything so trite.

For better and for worse—and it really is both—Walter’s dismal family experience has made him who he is. It gives him insights, empathy, and a certain cynical wisdom. Walter is someone who can explain why Fight Club is a great movie, and in a really agonized moment, can almost be unmade by the tender family reunion at the end of Disney's Tangled. Kelly is incredibly lovable, but that moment simply doesn’t resonate for him because he’s never known anything but a loving, supportive family.

The best part is that Kelly isn’t wrong to love Disney, or to care who he sleeps with, or to want sex to be special. There are ways in which his fantasies are unhealthy and selfish, and then there are ways in which they are fresh and brave—arguably on most college campuses today, it takes way more guts for a gay man to defend such a romantic view of sex than to “come out.”

In this book, in this relationship, there is room for Davidsons and Lucases, for Fight Club and Tangled, for Walter and Kelly. Neither is privileged, neither rescues the other. They are two very different boys, and thankfully they find each other and fall in love. And it’s beautiful.

Rating: Five Stars

(Originally posted on Goodreads:)

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