Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Small-Town Polyamory: Heidi Cullinan's SANTA BABY

Threesomes are a common sight in erotic romance, and even now in some hot contemporary romance. But in the typically conservative subgenre of small town romance? Leave it to Heidi Cullinan to craft a story that combines old tropes and new identities, all with a hefty dose of (Christian) holiday cheer.

Cullinan's unusual holiday story is set in the small Minnesota town of Logan, whose citizens are trying to revive it by making it a tourist mecca for all things Christmas, with particular appeal to the LGBTQ crowd (the first three books in the "Minnesota Christmas" series featured the romances of thee gay male couples). To help with this project, the town has hired developer Dale Davidson, a friendly people pleaser who is developing a crush on town librarian Gabriel. Dale knows he is polyamorous, but Gabriel appears to be in a committed, and decidedly monogamous relationship with Arthur, the son of the town's biggest gossip. But when straight-shooter Arthur cuts to the chase—"You just flirting, or you interested?"—and invites Dale to come play, Dale can't help but wonder how good an idea it is to "start something in a small town"—especially the small town that has hired him. But Dale's emotional attraction to nerdy, neurotic Gabriel, as well as his kinky attraction to dominant Arthur, has him throwing his better judgment aside.

Unfortunately, though, Dale's not the only one with worries. Gabriel, who only recently became involved with Arthur, his first boyfriend, is feeling decidedly guilty about his own growing attraction to Dale, an attraction that seems to be something more than just physical. Especially because his love for Arthur is just as strong as ever. Admitting that he was gay and enjoyed submissive play was hard enough. Gabriel is just not willing to even think about the possibility that he might be polyamorous, too. Especially since he and Arthur are hoping to take in foster children soon after they marry, and if anyone found out he was in a relationship with two different men, the folks from Social Services would look decidedly askance.

And so the hot three-way turns into an embarrassing melt-down, and Dale returns home to the Twin Cities, disappointed. And Gabriel and Arthur try to return to their own lives, and preparing for the upcoming Christmas in July town celebration. But Gabriel is simply not his usual happy self, something that not only Arthur, but a lot of the other townspeople in Logan, can't help but see.

Arthur, who has a lot more experience in the kinky sides of life and love than Gabriel does, slowly begins to realize just what's going on inside Gabriel's head. And with some help from an old friend of his own, Arthur knows that he needs to help Gabriel acknowledge and accept all aspects of himself. Even the ones that Arthur himself doesn't share: "I'm telling you, if you're discovering your heart is complex enough it wants to fall in love with two people at once, I will not be the asshole who turns you away for wanting to be who you are." (929).

And so Gabriel and Arthur continue to plan their winter wedding, even while Gabriel and Dale begin to quietly date. And Dale, with his own submissive tendencies, enjoys power play with Arthur, even if he and Arthur do not share the same type of romantic feelings for one another that Dale shares with Gabriel. Might this "thruple" somehow find a way to make a life for themselves, even in the midst of a very small town? Even if Gabriel and Arthur have to give up their dreams of being parents someday?

I've read many erotic romances, and some contemporary romances, which featured threesomes. But typically, those books have been tightly focused on the three members involved in a relationship, which, even if the situation is not presented as a fantasy within the book, can give it the feeling of a fantasy to the reader outside the book. In contrast, Santa Baby is the first romance I've read that actually felt like its characters were struggling to figure out how to embrace a polyamorous identity but still be part of a larger, non-kink community. It may be wish-fulfillment on Cullinan's part to make Dale, Gabriel, and Arthur's complicated relationship ultimately acceptable to the residents of small-town Logan. But it's a wish-fulfillment that makes me think more about the feasibility of integrating polyamorous alternatives to monogamy into "normal" life than any erotic menage romance ever has.

Santa Baby
(Minnesota Christmas, Book #4)
indie-published, 2016


  1. I'm going to check out this series. Thanks!

    1. You're very welcome! I hope you enjoy it/them...

  2. Cullinan is always a pleasure to read. Thoughtful and well written.

  3. I have strong reservations about recommending this book to anyone who wants to learn about polyamory or BDSM. First of all, it promotes a common misconception that polyamorous people are ipso facto into threesomes. It also shows BDSM being used as a form of psychological therapy. And it appears to show that people who are raped may be victims of rape due to having a submissive nature. There were other problems as well - but these alone were doozies. I have liked other Cullinan books, despite her instance on even very young protagonists getting married (she believes in HEAs not HFNs.) But speaking as a person from the polyamorous community - this was a no no.

    1. Thanks, Anonymous, for sharing your reservations about the book. I am not a person in the polyamorous community, and my thoughts no doubt reflect that.

      I did not share the same take-away about polyamorous relationships that you fear the book promotes (that polyamorous people are ipso facto into threesomes). In this particular book, these three characters group enjoy having sex all together, but at other times each likes to be alone with one or the other partner. Do other romance novels with poly characters typically portray them in threesomes? Or is it more of a conventional wisdom type of misconception, one that this book inadvertently plays into?

      I'd be interested to hear more of your thoughts about the other two reservations you raise. Re BDSM being used as a form of psychological therapy—do you mean during the scene in which Arthur persuades Dale to tell him about his past sexual abuse by asking him to participate in a "scene," and to use subspace as a safe space from which to talk about it? Was this not realistic, to your mind? Or did you find it abusive of Arthur to use his dominant personality to try and "fix" Dale, when he is not a psychologist?

      Re the idea that people who are raped may be victims of rape due to having a submissive nature. Arthur says this: "You've probably moved up the ranks at jobs your whole life, because you're a pleaser, and you deliver. But there's an edge to the sword. It's easy to abuse that kind of person, too" (Kindle Loc 2003). Do you think he is wrong, that people with this particular type of submissive personality are NOT more vulnerable than those who have a different type of personality (submissive or not)? Or do you think that there might be some truth to his statement, but that it is potentially too damaging to discuss/depict such an idea, because said idea can too easy shade into blaming the victim discourse?

    2. The response below came to me via email, but as if it had been written in the comments section of the blog. But it is not showing up here, for some reason. I am posting it here on the author's behalf.

      t's a pleasure to receive such a thoughtful reply to my comment. I'm sorry I didn't return until now (current events sucked all the oxygen from the room.)

      This book read very much as though it were written assuming many of its readers would not know much about polyamory. Therefore it could be said to bear an extra burden of being an educational introduction, rather than simply entertainment. Although I can't speak for the entire community, I can say much like my bi friends, my poly friends get awfully tired of the common assumption that being poly automatically means being into threesomes. Or, that if one likes one member of a pre-existing couple, it must be easy to like the other member as well. Neither case is invariably or even commonly true. Not many romances portray true polyamory - most focus on menage often leading to stable triad HEAs. Which is fine and can be enjoyable to read, but this, unlike those, was trumpeted as a poly book.

      Re: the BDSM, yes you nailed it. I was not comfortable with Arthur's actions. In part that was due to the larger context of some other (fairly bad) BDSM books which have come out in the past decade which went a great deal further down this path. At least in this case the author had her character get professional help. But as I recall we never see that help, it's offstage. This is the powerful scene, and this shows BDSM as an aid to healing used by a non-professional's hands. That concerns me.

      Lastly, your insight into the potential victim blaming. I am not qualified to answer if people who are by nature pleasers, and in this case on occasion deeply in subspace, are more likely to be raped. I doubt the author is qualified either. I am concerned about the larger context again of this being one of the few popular novels in which a male is raped. It's a fairly unusual topic. So it might be said to have more significance than if it were one of many books/movies/TV shows about male rape victims with all different sorts of personalities. It's also worrisome from the POV of women, is this book saying that women who are BDSM subs are also therefore more likely to be raped? I don't know, but worry a case could be made for this sort of victim blaming.

      I feel that authors should be allowed to follow their muses - you do with your art as you please. As consumers, we have choices. On the other hand, I feel (coming from a publishing background myself) that self-published authors have two hats on. The publisher hat carries a heavier burden than just more admin, tech and marketing. It carries the burden of being a media channel, of standing for something, of making active decisions about what will be published and what will not.

      That's something I haven't seen much discussion or debate about in the self publishing community. They seem much more likely to let the rule of commerce or reader popularity be their sole guide as to whether their muse should be set to fly free. And yet, many of the same people are outraged at a book S&S has given a large advance for. So, I think there is a debate to be had. And I hope this particular author, among others, engages in it, as her books are notably influential in certain communities.

    3. Thanks, Anonymous, for continuing the conversation. You've made me want to research romances in which men are raped, to see if there is a breadth of personalities displayed or not.

      I'm intrigued by your comments about the lack of discussion about self-publishers as "media channels." The term "gatekeeper" is the one I'm more familiar with. The "gatekeeper" function is often discussed as a negative aspect of traditional publishing: keeping women and especially writers of color from gaining access to publishing resources and clout. But it also serves, as you write, to set standards, to show what is acceptable and what isn't, what a publisher "stands for."

      I worked in trade publishing for nearly a decade after graduating from college, in children's book publishing. We did not often talk about gatekeeping from a standards point of view when we discussed whether or not to publish a book (such conversations were formal, taking place in meetings in which the editors, the publisher, and the heads of marketing and sales all voted); most of the conversations were about whether a book would sell or not. Should independent publishers/self-publishers hold themselves to a different/higher standard? I think some do, but others, like their traditional commercial brethren, focus primarily on profit, on what will sell.

  4. BTW: I'm assuming this was self-published. But I can't recall for sure. If it wasn't, then obviously I am mistaken.