Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Paying it Forward: Heidi Cullinan's LOVE LESSONS series

"Pay it forward": to repay a good deed that someone has done for you not by reimbursing that original benefactor, but by doing a good deed to someone else entirely. According to Wikipedia, the concept is as old as the ancient Greeks, and endorsed by a panoply of past luminaries from Ben Franklin to Ralph Waldo Emerson, from Lily Hardy Hammond to Robert Heinlein. Sometimes, the philosophy focuses on random acts of kindness to strangers: paying the toll for the car behind you; buying the cup of coffee for the person standing in the Starbucks line beside you. Other times, though, paying it forward is more specific: volunteering at one homeless shelter after you've been helped by a different one; helping unpublished writers learn more about their craft when you're an already-published author. Some of the most powerful acts of paying it forward, I think, take place among groups of people who miss out on the benefits others of us take for granted. Such as adolescents who find themselves estranged from their friends, families, and networks of support because of their sexual or gender identities.

This concept of paying it forward serves as a unifying thread through each of the three New Adult romances that Heidi Cullinan has published as the Love Lessons series. In book one, Walter Lucas had planned to spend his senior year living off campus. But when his planned roommate graduates early and moves away, Hope's Dean denies Walter's request, insisting that he live in the dorms. Thus Walter, big gay man about campus, finds himself stuck rooming with geeky, Disney-loving, allergy-suffering freshman Kelly Davidson. Kelly, who grew up in a close-knit, accepting family but who is just coming out in public for the first time, is looking for romance with a capital "R." To cynical flirt Walter, wanting romance is to want a false, Disney-fied version of life:

"What the hell do I do on a date that I don't do any other time? Talk? Hell, you and I are talking right now. Go out to eat? That's on the agenda too. Doesn't mean we're sleeping together, not necessarily. Sometimes sex happens with people I hang out with, sometimes it just happens. It's like a game. Why would I want to fuck it up with some heterosexual mating dance?" (Kindle Loc 408)

With such an attitude, Walter's completely up for casual sex with his younger roomie. But Kelly wants his first time to be special, to matter. And so, despite his attraction to Hope College's very own homosexual Casanova, Kelly keeps his hands to himself.

Is Kelly at fault for wanting perfection, the ideal, a fantasy relationship that never can exist in reality? Or is Walter, for not being willing to even consider, never mind believe in, the ideal at all? Cullinan does an amazing job balancing the need to stick a pin in the false promises offered by the papering over, or Disney-fication, of real-life injustice, while simultaneously acknowledging the power of our fantasies and dreams to inspire.

This is a lesson that both Kelly and Walter take with them into the second book in the series, where they act not just as cameo guest stars from a past book, but play an active role in supporting the protagonists of Fever Pitch, both of whom are dealing with situations where their sexuality is far less accepted than was Kelly and Walter's. For Giles Mulder, high school has been a "slog through hell" (181). His family accepts and loves him for who he is, but since Giles doesn't not want, and isn't at all able, to pretend he's anything but gay, his male peers have taken their homophobia out both verbally and physically, on Giles' body. Especially those peers who've indulged sexually with Giles but who fear having anyone find out about it.

Parties are usually not Giles' scene—being the ball in a drunken game of "Kick the Fag" is hardly his idea of fun—but he promised best friend Mina he'd tag along to the end-of-senior-year shindig. No way had he expected the night to end in a lakeside tryst with Aaron Seavers, the popular transfer student whom he'd been crushing on all year. Or that he'd arrive at St. Timothy College in September to discover Aaron, who'd left him without a word, a fellow first-year.

Quiet, gentle Aaron has bee browbeaten for years by his overbearing father. But after he meets Walter during his summer job at his father's law office, and finally begins to talk openly about his sexual identity, he begins to find the courage to make a life decision: he'll follow Giles to St. Timothy. Aaron hopes being away from his family will help him figure out what he wants—out of life, out of love, and especially out of himself. Dealing with a deeply strange roommate, as well as Giles' unexpected animosity, leaves Aaron wondering if coming to St. T's was a huge mistake. But when Aaron's singing talent lands him in the midst of the college's chorus, as well as in its elite male singing group, the Ambassadors, he finds a built-in support group he never even realized he was missing.

A group he certainly needs after his father kicks him out of the house at Christmas after he hears that Aaron was kissing a boy (Giles) at the Winter Concert. But Aaron needs Walter's friendship even more, a need which Walter is determined to meet:

"I knew when I first saw you that you were lonely too. When I saw you in your corner all curled up, though, it got to me because you looked like I still feel inside most of the time. It was like I had to get you out of there,  had to take you to lunch, had to keep in touch with you, because everything about you felt like this big chance to take care of someone the way nobody ever did me, not until Kelly. I think if Kelly weren't so awesome, didn't know where this all came from, he'd be jealous. He does know, though, and he gets how taking care of you is like taking care of the little brother I never had or an alternate version of me. . . . Sometimes we need a place to be completely safe, somewhere boring that isn't about sex or adventure or wild hairs. I am that place for you." (Loc 3750).

Romance is important, yes but so is having friends who make you feel protected, feel safe. Especially when the world—or more painfully, one's family—is not a welcoming place.

I had originally started reading with book three in the series, Lonely Hearts, which was published this year, but I had to go back and start over with book one, because there were so many characters, with so many relevant stories, from the previous two books in the series that I felt I was missing out by not understanding all the romantic and friend connections Cullinan had established earlier in the series. And while each of these three books can stand alone, the experience is far richer if they are read in order.

Lonely Hearts, in fact, opens with Walter and Kelly's summer wedding, a Disney-themed extravaganza that has bitter, nasty Elijah (Aaron's difficult former roommate) nearly gagging. Elijah, whose gayness was anathema to his strictly religious parents, has nearly lost himself pretending to be the repentant Christian boy his mother and father demanded of him after he limped home after a painful year on the streets. He understands why St. Timothy's music clique has adopted "orphaned" Aaron—Aaron's sweet, and kind, and handsome, and good. But prickly, caustic, unlovable Elijah knows he's another story. He alternately rejects with loathing and feels weak at accepting Aaron and Giles' intrusion into his solitary life. And drowns himself in liquor and drugs to dull his feelings.

Elijah's not the only one who needs drink and drugs to help him pack away the pain from a life that's been "a lot more Grimm brothers and much less Walt Disney" (310). Baz Acker, the senior member of the Ambassadors, works hard to present a hip, carefree face to the St. Timothy community, even while his dark glasses and bum hip speak to Baz's own share of Grimm brothers in his past. Baz rarely tells anyone about being gay-bashed outside of a Chicago Boystown bar on his sixteenth birthday ("I lived. My boyfriend didn't" [460]), but finds himself confiding in Elijah at the wedding. Baz's graduating friends warn Elijah away from the volatile Baz, but Elijah knows Baz doesn't always cut and run—he's saved Elijah's life, not once, but twice.

Yet as the new school year unwinds, and Baz vacillates between wooing Elijah and giving him the cold shoulder, Elijah isn't sure he can cope—with college, with romance, or with his increasingly frequent anxiety attacks. And especially not with the publicity of having a relationship with a guy who has become the center of a maelstrom of media interest after said guy's mother announces her candidacy for a U. S. senate seat. Only the wholehearted support of Giles, Aaron, Walter, Kelly, and the music gang can help Elijah and Baz find the sheer courage to care about another, and, more difficultly, about themselves.

And to find their own unique ways of paying it forward.

Love Lessons
     Book #1 Love Lessons 
     Book #2 Fever Pitch
     Book #3 Lonely Hearts

Samhain, 2013, 2014, 2015


  1. Loved all three books. They are amazing. Cullinan does depth of emotion better than anyone.