A Guest Review by Damon
REVIEW SUMMARY: One of our genre’s best authors flexes her muscle in a subtle, supple pas de deux.
Ed Maurer has bounced back, more or less, from the neck injury that permanently benched his semi-pro football career, but every time he turns around, dance instructor Laurie Parker is in his way. But when a bargain lands him as an assistant in Laurie’s ballroom dancing class, everything changes.
As Laurie and Ed lose themselves in dance, their lives continue to spin around them: Ed’s injury makes it clear he’s nowhere near recovery, Laurie feels the pressure by friends and family to perform once more, and the community center that has become such an important part of both their worlds threatens to close. Alone, they haven’t had the strength or spirit to face what life has hurled at them. But as the turns of their personal paths lead them time and again to one another, Ed and Laurie begin to think that if they dance this dance together, they might be able to succeed.
Okay… first things first: five out of five stars obviously. This book is so adamantly, obviously superior to 90% of the gay romantic fiction being published that I feel like assigning it a comparative rank seems juvenile. At this level of craft, can the five stars be in question?. I feel like when you have a gifted, warm, generous writer who consistently pushes into new terrain with grace and affection, the question is not if you will enjoy the book but why. The issue won’t be the stars, it will be the ways the stars align in each book.
I’ve said it before but it bears repeating, Cullinan writes her books. She doesn’t merely type them and hope for the best; she doesn’t cobble them together out of half-digested borrowings; she doesn’t regurgitate the same bland book over and over in an Ourobouros of homoerotic hackwork. Cullinan writes; she writes beautifully; and she has written a marvelous book that you will enjoy if you have any interest in sexy, subtle, snarky romance fiction.
Dance with Me is a contemporary Odd Couple narrative about two men who shouldn’t work together, but almost cannot work apart. As with many of her books, Cullinan starts with a “cute” story germ that almost feels like a high-end porn setup (Dancer and Jock tussle!) and then refuses to take the easy, sleazy road to their HEA. The story straddles the worlds of dance and football at several levels of professionalism and expertise… As always, Cullinan revels in the particulars of her characters’ lives. Her characters inhabit the worlds of sports and art from limelight to ruin fully and viscerally because she spends time aggregating the tiny slivers of reality that make their jobs feel like more than a costumes her characters wear between sexy times and witty banter.
And let me tell you: the times, they are sexy and the banter, it is witty. The engaging reality of these two men slams into you from the first intense pages of personal setback which set up the plot and the searing meet-cute. With typical panache, she draws clear parallels between the competitiveness and equilibrium native to all athletes of stage and field… and then keeps her men off balance for most of the book with delicious results. She sidesteps the clichés about masculinity and aggression you might expect, and even prods stereotypes and prejudices within the gay community. Awesome! Cullinan has a knack for building these meat-n-bone men and then dragging them towards their happy endings over mud and marble.
Personal aside: I should add that I come to this book with a strange skew: this book covers a lot of personal terrain for me. I worked in theatre as a song-n-dance guy till I was in my mid-20s, so I have had close contact with the strange overlapping worlds of the professional dancer; I know several “Lauries.” Likewise, I grew up in Texas, where Football is a religion and semi-pro games often devolve into brutal free-for-alls. Weirdly, I also have friends who compete (and teach) on the international ballroom circuit. Those familiarities might have worked against me; Cullinan always does her homework, but knowing turf intimately can work against the enjoyment of a story. Of course, I needn’t have worried…
Semi-pro football player Ed starts the book with a brutal, tragic injury that reroutes his entire life for better and worse: a promising athlete doomed to cubicle hell. Picked out in snarky, snappy humor, Ed offers up all kinds of sexy he-man goodness without sliding into cliché. Unmanned by his failings, his regret, and his debilitating injuries, his journey presents the bedrock of the book. Though the narrative uses a split third person POV, in some ways the story belongs to Ed a bit more because the plot points hinge on his transformations and decisions. My sense was that Cullinan felt more connected to Ed, and so I did as well.
Laurie tended to be more objectified and held at arm’s length, even when he controlled the POV; his detachment and neuroses (n.b. completely characteristic of dancers) made him into the object for Ed’s subject, so that although they shared the story, I experienced Laurie at a slight remove. By the same token, Laurie’s journey from artistic paralysis to explosive release provides much of the book’s sparkle. It’s a clever choice because Cullinan ends up using the intense, intricate realities of dance (in several forms) to bring her characters together and to navigate the rough terrain between them. Those dance details weave seamlessly through the entire novel. Magical stuff. I especially appreciated the fact that both men refused to capitulate, but both managed to compromise believably. Theirs felt like a real relationship: warm, human, and humorous.
And the sex!?! Holy Moly, Mother of Lube is the sex hot! The inexorable dance these fellas do around and against each other proves excruciating and exquisite. Again, Cullinan refuses to kick back and crank out the same old, same old. No two of her characters have the same kind of sex or the same desires. She knows better. The intimacy between her heroes specifies and defines their relationships; every interaction, erotic or otherwise, builds and transmutes them. And because dance is inherently physical and performative she gets to play with voyeurism, exhibitionism, obsession, flexibility, and dominance between Ed and Laurie as they dance towards and around each other. Raunchy, smoldering tenderness unfolds and entangles them.
Likewise, Cullinan also accomplishes a deft trick in this book, using injury and defeat as a way to render her men fragile without making them passive. The cleverness in that? Two aggressive, opinionated males flesh themselves out three-dimensionally by revealing their flaws and handicaps: lovely. In that context, gentle treatment only underscores their pain (and masculinity). Since injury factors so heavily in these men’s lives, Hurt/Care becomes less a genre trope than the baseline for their entire existences. It’s a delicious M/M seam between behaviors that need to be both butch and vulnerable. Ed and Laurie learn to act as stem and flower in turn for each other, and the spot-on push/pull of partnered dance spills over into their lives.
Do I have any reservations about Dance with Me? Meh. Minor quibbles. There’s a looseness to some of the connective tissue in the subplots; interestingly the squishy bits all pivot on Laurie (who as I’ve mentioned, did seem less central at times). The initial public “ruining” of Laurie never landed with me (because of my familiarity with the dance and ballroom worlds) and felt like a melodramatic device more than an actual catastrophe. The reconciliation with Laurie’s mother felt oddly tidy and slick. And most noticeably, there is a Mickey-n-Judy “putting on a show” subplot in the second half that I saw coming a little too early and that ultimately imploded in a way that made it feel artificial and unnecessary. And yet, the radiant, redemptive ending sort of swept that minor clutter out of consciousness.
Totally dug this one. I loved getting to know these two men and will definitely read it again… more than once. If for some insane reason you haven’t already bought it, you should. And if you own it and have dallied, you’re missing out. Dance with Me offers righteous moves and technique to spare.