A Willful Woman…

Thoughts about books from a romance addict.

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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The Year We Fell Down by Sarina Bowen

What tickled my fancy: Sensible heroine who doesn’t lose herself in unrequited love.

What ticked me off: E.L. James has much to answer for, and not just crappy BDSM scenes.

Who might like it: Someone looking for a friends-to-lovers story or more realistic, less overwrought NA.

 

It’s very easy for a certain kind of romance to go wrong for me.  Ones in which, say, the fat girl with low self-esteem gets the conventionally gorgeous guy who suddenly discovers he adore curves, despite having only dated rail-thin women in the past… and it’s so obvious that it’s being written as a fantasy, not as something that could reasonably happen.

This manages to escape being one of those books. It is a story about an underdog heroine who gets the gorgeous guy, but it’s a relationship that happens organically, as two friends come to care about each other.

Corey and Hartley get to be friends because they’re both athletes who are sharing the “gimp” floor at college. The difference is, Hartley’s only a temporary gimp, while Corey will never walk unassisted again. But they share a lot of experiences, and are very comfortable with each other. Corey is still physically and psychologically settling into how different her new life is, so having someone to be easy with means a lot. But his gorgeous, perfect, trophy girlfriend makes everything else hard.

I would’ve liked the book so much more if it weren’t for the incessant references to Corey’s imaginary “hope fairy,” which is straight out of Ana Steele’s repertoire. I wish that instead of imagining putting duct tape over the fairy’s mouth, Corey had had a giant foot step on her the first time she appeared. But I appreciated that Corey realizes she needs to take care of herself, get over Hartley, and work on new ways to make herself happy.

Hartley’s feelings towards his girlfriend are interestingly complex — she really is a trophy for him — but I would’ve liked to see his revelation that it was time to end it and follow his heart. And maybe just a teeny bit of suffering for him would’ve been nice… he gets to decide what he wants, and there it is, waiting for him. Though perhaps it’s unfair to complain of that when I’m praising the book’s realism. In any event, the story is very sweet, with just a little bit of touching heartbreak instead of the usual NA hog wallow of angst.

Final thoughts:  Although I didn’t love it, I guess I won’t ask Jane for my money back.

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