Dance With Me by Heidi Cullinan
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
This is a bit of a difficult review to write because while the book is decent, I didn’t particularly enjoy reading it. I’m not entirely sure why except I couldn’t connect to either character and thus never really cared about them together. Due to this the story somewhat bored me and I found myself sometimes skimming just to finish. There are a lot of great elements in the story that should work together to form a moving, memorable story. I like the individual characters but together I never really bought into their dynamic and I didn’t like some of the choices the story made. Overall this one just didn’t work for me unfortunately, but judging by the popularity of the story it might just be me.
The story follows dancer Laurie and ex-football player Ed as they try to form a life together after individual crushing disappointments. Ed is injured during a semi-pro game and has to give up football entirely. He’s stuck in a desk job he hates, living with extremely difficult and frustrating neck pain. Laurie for his part ruined his dance career after an ill-fated attempt to bring man/man ballroom dancing into the mainstream competition. The two have a lot of baggage to overcome individually, let alone together.
Like all of Cullinan’s books, Dance with Me is definitely well written with a lot of subtle emotion, nuance, and descriptive quality. There is a good bit of angst but nothing overwhelming or especially exhausting to read. Instead the story unfolds naturally as the main relationship builds piece by piece. The changes and steps make sense and feel organic as the characters move through the story. This is a character driven story where the tension is entirely internal due to the various issues between the two men. This will appeal most to those readers that like complex men with a lot of angst between them.
This is also where there are a lot of great elements. Both characters are well rounded and pretty complicated. Laurie is a very difficult, fussy kind of man that is deeply unhappy with his life but doesn’t know exactly why or how to change it. Instead he tends to alienate others with his behavior though he has a genuinely good heart at the core. For his part Ed is more the one I gravitated to and found more interesting. His difficult path is definitely hard to read at times as he struggles with a life of pain management and depression. His neck injury is one he’ll have to live with and this makes his portion of the story pretty compelling. Watching as he struggles, sometimes fails, and ultimately finds a positive path in his life is perhaps the main reason I stuck with the story. It’s moving and very engaging.
On the flip side when the two men get together is where I stumble a little bit with the story. I just couldn’t get interested in them as a couple. Their chemistry went hot and cold for me. When Laurie is describing their first time together, while Ed was drunk no less, I got chills during that scene. It’s so romantic and beautiful, yet Ed drove me nuts when he failed to say a single word. Ed’s failure to have any ability to really communicate limits his character’s likability for me. I wanted him to be more mature, more able to say something while Laurie lives in his head so much the two clash a lot with misunderstandings. This keeps the tension high and some readers will appreciate this dynamic more than I did.
I had some additional problems with the choices in the story. I didn’t particularly like any of the female characters in the story. They come across as controlling, lecturing, and very strident. Although they all come around in the end to make a happy ending, all the females up to that point are very off putting and difficult. Additionally while the characters of Oliver and Christopher are a nice addition, the last sex scene between the four of them really put me off. It feels totally out of place and awkward. I didn’t really understand what point the story was trying to convey and ultimately that sex scene made me want to drop the story entirely. Thankfully it’s close to the end but it feels like a jarring moment and out of the blue. Likewise some of the resolutions, especially Ed and Laurie dancing, don’t really feel natural or honest but instead manufactured to tack on a happy ending. Perhaps this is a more a function of the fact that I was already disconnected to the story and the later elements and scenes did nothing to re-engage me.
Trying to explain these issues feels awkward and somewhat intangible. For these reasons and others, the story and characters just didn’t work for me. It’s well written and definitely a story I can see striking a chord with readers. I’m just sorry it didn’t with me. Perhaps next time.