A Willful Woman…

Thoughts about books from a romance addict.

TBR Challenge: Forget Me Not (Mnevermind 2) by Jordan Castillo Price

The theme: Something “different.”

Why this one: I broke my “print books only” rule this month, because my print tbr is 99% historical romance, and .99% contemporary or paranormal romance. I decided to go truly out of my comfort zone with science fiction. As it turned out, most of the science fiction in this trilogy (of the two books I’ve read) was in the first book; the second is almost all romance and character study. So not really all that different; don’t tell the Theme Police.

Forget Me Not is narrated by Elijah Crowe, the autistic man who started mysteriously appearing in Daniel’s mnems in book one. (Mnems, pronounced “neems,” are a bit like programmed dreams– a simplification, but it will do for the purposes of this review.) I was not in love with how Elijah’s autism was perceived by Daniel in The Persistence of Memory, so what a relief and joy it was to discover that he’s not only a beautifully drawn character, but his own narrative is not self-hating.

“‘I see the way you treat Big Dan,’ he said, as the elevator settled and the first floor light went off. ‘Like a regular person.’

Although his use of the word “regular” was problematically inexact, I had a sense of what he meant. Big Dan [Daniel’s father] wasn’t neurotypical, but neither was I. Being neurotypical was overrated, in my opinion — plenty of people like Tod and Ryan were about as ‘regular’ as you could get, and as far as I was concerned, it didn’t make them any more appealing.”

The story is mainly about Elijah’s navigating his newfound interest in another man, something which is difficult for him because the dating rules he’s learned so carefully may not apply. There are a lot of roadblocks in the way, including Daniel’s prejudices, a therapist who believes Elijah may be the victim of a predatory Daniel, a scarily homophobic bully at Elijah’s work, and Elijah’s sensory issues. Not all of these are fully resolved, though I suppose they may be in the third book. (From the reviews, it doesn’t look like they are. I would love to see him find a new therapist who really supports him, doesn’t infantilize him, and for God’s sake, helps him find a non obtrusive stim instead of having him fight it all the time.)

I appreciated that Elijah has neither cute quirky romance novel autism nor cliched lit fic aloof autism. He’s genuinely disabled, but not helpless, and he’s a fully realized, sympathetic, and lovable person. His anxieties strongly resonated with me, and I was saddened by how much he feels the need to change himself for others, even answering the classic “top or bottom” question by deciding,

“I would force myself to be whatever would go best with him. After all, he’d had several years in which to develop his preferences. I was new at being gay. I would adapt.”

Thankfully, Daniel is patient and not at all pushy.

As with the first book, the ending kind of fades away, so it’s really not a complete story. But it’s completely worth reading anyway.

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Carry the Ocean by Heidi Cullinan

(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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