Book Review: Dance with Me by Heidi Cullinan
(This review is by guest blogger Erin!)
I like a lot of angst in my romance. Not in a gratuitous way—not angst for angst’s sake—but I want a really juicy conflict. I want to feel all the turmoil going on between the characters. I want the conflict to be substantial, too, not just “Oh, does he like me?” but “he likes me and I like him but there are fifteen reasons this can’t possibly work.”
Dance with Me certainly delivers on that level. It’s an opposites-attract story between two people with a lot of baggage. Ed is a former semipro football player whose career was derailed by a neck injury. He has a desk job he doesn’t like and suffers from chronic pain related to the injury. Laurie is a former professional dancer who gave up his career after a humiliating incident at a competition (more on that later). They meet because they both volunteer as teachers at a local community center. They argue, mostly over the music Laurie keeps pumping over the sound system, and things come to a head when Ed begs Laurie to turn off the thumping beats, offering to do anything, and Laurie stops the music (ha) on the condition that Ed be his assistant in a ballroom dance class he teaches. Ed agrees.
What Laurie doesn’t know is that Ed already knows some of the steps because he took ballroom dance classes as part of his physical therapy. What Ed doesn’t know is how affected he’ll be by simple masculine beauty of Laurie dancing.
The simple explanation of the plot is that the two character fall in love over a few weeks of dance classes. Ed proves to be a good assistant in the ballroom class, and Laurie offers to teach him some more advanced moves. Both of them enjoy the dancing immensely. But that’s too easy an explanation, because the dancing itself is a lot more complex and beautiful than that. (And it’s beautifully described.) They also have to deal with Laurie’s impossible parents, Ed’s sometimes debilitating pain, and there’s also a subplot involving figuring out how to keep the community center open after the city cuts its funding.
Some things I liked: The writing is fantastic, first of all. And although I found Laurie kind of a hard nut to crack, I really liked Ed, and I found the way his problems were portrayed to be quite realistic. I also liked that these are two guys who are gay and out, so their sexual orientation is unrelated to the plot (which is refreshing in a m/m romance). The only wrinkle related to that is the incident that ended Laurie’s career: he was kicked out of a ballroom dance competition for entering it with his male partner (effectively ruining his romantic relationship with his partner and the partner’s career). The book also has a lot of emotional resonance, and I really felt for the characters, Ed especially, and I may have even shed a few tears. Or I had something in my eye. Yeah.
But I have a few niggles, which keeps the book from getting the last half star. It felt like Laurie’s reaction to his problems was out of proportion to their severity. Basically, he ended his career after an embarrassing incident, and he swears he no longer wants to perform, but we see glimpses of him enjoying dancing in front of an audience, and it was never clear to me why he quit, exactly. I kept waiting for him to drop some bomb relating to his reasoning, but it never came. Instead, he just repeatedly insists he has no desire to perform. Why? Don’t know. He has a scene with his mother at the end where he explains that teaching and working for the community center are what he wants, and he’s also happier than he’s ever been when he’s setting those things in motion in the second half of the novel, but there was something kind of unsatisfying about his explanations, and his motivations weren’t always clear to me.
There’s also a super weird scene toward the end when Ed and Laurie have dinner with Laurie’s mother’s friend Oliver and his partner. I won’t spoil it, but I will say that I think it was supposed to be sexy, but I found it sort of off-putting. (And in my defense, I’m not a prude; there’s all sorts of kinky stuff in the other Cullinan novels I’ve read (Special Delivery, Double Blind) most of which is pretty hot if not my cup of tea. But this particular scene just didn’t work for me, I think mostly because of the dynamic between Laurie and Oliver—Oliver comes off as kind of a creeper in the scene, frankly—and although Laurie has an important revelation in the scene, it comes up again later, and I don’t think the novel would have lost anything if the whole scene were cut.)
But overall, this was one of the better romances I’ve read in a while (I’m apparently only reviewing books that I loved) and I would whole-heartedly recommend it.