“Some advice, son.... Sometimes the ones we love are like butterflies, flitting all over, and we have to sit and wait patiently for them to land. Sometimes they never do, and that’s a risk we take. But sometimes what they need most is to see us sitting still, patient, waiting. To understand that we’re going to be there no matter what....Sometimes that’s more powerful than any words.”
Let me say up front, be prepared to let go and let the happy tears come as you read this utterly charming book.
By turns sexy, sweet and even sophisticated, Love Lessons goes down like an especially good virgin cocktail. It starts off as a tropey confection by pairing upperclassman Walter Lucas, an extroverted, gay Casanova who has a casual masculinity and oozes sexual charisma, with freshman Kelly Davidson, a shy, medically frail introvert whose quiet, boyish charm masks an adorable, Disney-princess inner psychology. It's a classic yoai ("boys love") manga storyline in literary form, and the novel stays mostly true to this spirit, with Kelly as the uke and Walter as the seme. That is, until life happens, challenging the two young men to survive as a couple and meet each other as equals. To her credit, Cullinan allows these likable characters to become fully developed personalities as the plot unfolds. Thanks to the author's exceptionally clear writing, I can easily imagine Walter, Kelly and their impressive ensemble of supporting characters outside the pages of the book. She captures, through laughter and tears, the angst and excitement of the college years as young people explore their identities and learn to manage complex emotions, including the socio-economic and political fissures that surround and shape our relationships.
Snappy, finely honed descriptions, many almost like modern aphorisms, make this book a breezy yet meaningful read. The author interweaves philosophy, psychology, literature, pop culture, gay life, family pressures and university politics seamlessly into the plot. Some elements that she uses to build the story are caricatures, e.g. Kelly's millennial Disney fetish, his too-good-to-be-true, loving middle class family brimming with Midwestern values, Walter's wealthy-but-dysfunctional urban family, and the creepy Nanny-state mentality of the liberal university, Hope. But she uses these exaggerations as foils, making them seem plausible and real by embedding them into a carefully curated world of evocative details and interconnections. In fact, the novel is such a pleasant experience largely because everything feels effortlessly interconnected, from the on-point delivery to the characterization to the sequencing of scenes.
I still remember the first book I read by Ms. Cullinan, A Private Gentleman, with fondness, though her stream-punk effort, A Clockwork Heart, didn't stay with me long. I read this book at the start of the world-wide covid-19 pandemic, and, above and beyond the craft and skill of the author, it was a much needed respite from the grim cycle of daily news. While I'd have enjoyed it regardless, but the characters came into my life at a good time. This is the first of a three novel, two novella series, and I'll be downloading the rest immediately. I have a hunch I'll remember Walter and Kelly for awhile.
Oh, and Ms. Cullinan, thanks for those happy tears. As we face the worst pandemic in a century and we're reminded why we love the ones we love, I found your story a sweet, straight forward testimony to caring, thoughtfulness, and how we should treat one another.