A Willful Woman…

Thoughts about books from a romance addict.

Carry the Ocean by Heidi Cullinan

on March 29, 2015

(Reviewed from an e-arc from NetGalley)

I ‘m always on the lookout for romances with autistic characters, and this New Adult romance is one of the most thematically interesting I’ve found. The two main characters are both disabled — Emmet is autistic, Jeremey has severe depression and anxiety — but the big difference between them is that only Emmet’s disability has been acknowledged and accommodated. So this is really not a story about an autistic person being rescued by love; if anything, it’s the other way around.

After ten months of crushing on his neighbor Jeremey from across the yard, Emmet finally manages to introduce himself. Jeremey hasn’t had a friend in awhile; if his mother didn’t drag him out of the house, he’d never leave his room. But after a lifetime of learning how to request and make modifications for himself, Emmet has no trouble understanding Jeremey’s similar difficulties with noise, overstimulation, and groups of people. Jeremey goes from thinking Emmet is “off” and “special needs,” to realizing he’s smart, cute, and very easy to be with. But even a good friendship, with the possibility of more, may not be enough to help him live with the ocean of depression he has to carry every day.

From the start, I was impressed with the fact that Emmet is genuinely disabled. (Although making him also a genius seemed like both a cliche and perhaps a form of compensating.). Autistic people in romance are rarely allowed to be more than reserved and quirky. Emmet is identifiably weird — he can’t pass. He rocks and flaps his arms and hums to himself. He can’t drive. Although he’s thinks of himself as having some “superpowers,” his autism is mostly not glamorous. Jeremey has what I guess you’d call neurotypical privilege, but his disability is also severe, particularly since it’s gone untreated for so long.

These aren’t your typical romance characters, and their romance isn’t exactly typical either. I found it sympathetic and believable, because they really care about each other and work hard to be good to each other. Trying to be “good boyfriends” brings out the best in them — but there are mistakes, and upsets, and sometimes they each need to put self-care ahead of the relationship. I liked the realistic imperfections; even Emmet’s mom, who initially seems like the perfect, understanding parent for a gay autistic boy, screws up by not seeing her son as someone who can have a boyfriend.

When you’re autistic, everyone acts as if you’re not a real human. I’m angry at my family because they said I was a real human. But when I say I’m your boyfriend, they say I can’t be. So they lied. I’m not a real human.

The story is told in alternating first person narratives, both of which are kind of info-dumpy. Jeremey’s worked better for me than Emmet’s, which I had number of problems with. One is that it sounds so much like other fictional autistic narratives I’ve read, and in my experience, it’s not that believable a voice to begin with. Autistic people don’t necessarily sound all that different from neurotypical people when they write. It also makes him sound like a young kid, which is uncomfortable when you’re reading a romance that includes sex. (He’s 19 and Jeremey is 18.)                                 

I did like the slow, thoughtful way their sexual relationship grew. It’s not a super sexy book, but their physical relationship is important to them. They both like Emmet to be in charge, which works with their characters.

The story is more slow-moving and everyday than I normally go for, but overall I really enjoyed it. But then, in a way, it’s exactly my fantasy. Not a sexual fantasy, but a mom fantasy, one about an autistic person gaining independence, and finding love just by being himself. You go, Emmet.

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4 responses to “Carry the Ocean by Heidi Cullinan

  1. lawless says:

    Thanks for this. Something Sunita said on her blog about how she dislikes the emphasis in m/m on broken people stuck in my craw, and that is why. m/m is light years ahead of het with respect to realism and depicting disability as something other than a convenient plot point.

    Jordan Castillo Price has written a series with an autistic MC I found well-rounded and believable – Mnevermind. Have you read it? The last book, which I haven’t read, just came out, but the first two — one from the neurotypical character’s POV and one from the autistic character’s POV — are really good and convincing. (Mother of a daughter diagnosed with ASD at age 18 — one who travelled to China with a school group and took a bus by herself to see her girlfriend in Ohio, so I get it.) If you haven’t, I recommend it.

    • willaful says:

      Alexis Hall just recommended that to me. Two recommendations is a charm!

      I agree that a lot of m/m writers are really working hard to portray disability well. Maybe because so many of them have had to deal with -isms in their lives.

  2. I’ve never read any of Cullinan’s books. Seems like this might be a good one to start with. Great review, thanks!

  3. kaetrin says:

    I’ve finished it and written my review (it’s not up yet of course), so I felt “safe” to come and read your thoughts. I didn’t find it info-dumpy really but I wonder how much of that is your familiarity with some of the subject matter and my relative ignorance? I was quite happy to have a lot of it explained to me and there were some things which feel a lot clearer now. The concept that an autistic person may experience all the sounds and movements and noises as magnified was new to me but it made a lot of sense I thought. My son has a couple of friends who has Asperger’s – they’re both very different actually but for one of them in particular, it gives me extra understanding when he comes over to play. (Not that he’s ever any trouble.)

    You do make a good point about Emmet seeming younger than his age (I felt that sometimes but didn’t say anything in my review about it. Dammit.)

    I was mainly delighted by this romance. I really enjoyed it and I kind of fell in love with Emmet.

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