Dirty Laundry by Heidi Cullinan

February 24, 2014 Contemporary, Reviews 2

Book Cover for Dirty Laundry by Heidi Cullinan. Bottom half is a sepia-tone photo of washing machines in a laundromat. Top half is a color photo of a blond white man wearing glasses, a white collared shirt and an unzipped grey jacket, and a muscular white man wearing a straw cowboy hat and no shirt. One night on Twitter I asked people to let me know about books they knew dealt with disability and/or had PoC characters because it’s not easy to search for that on NetGalley or retailer sites. Heidi Cullinan tweeted me to suggest two of her books as fitting the bill, then offered to send me a copy of my choice to read and review. Because it was out already and had a character with OCD, I opted for Dirty Laundry.

Our heroes have their meet cute in a laundromat in the Colorado college town they both live in. Entomology grad student Adam Ellery was just trying to wash his clothes when group of frat kids decide to give him a hard time. They’re holding his eyeglasses hostage and playing keep-away with his laundry when bar bouncer Denver Rogers walks in. Tall and muscle-bound, Denver quickly dispenses with the frat punks and sends them on their way before nonchalantly continuing with his laundry. Shy, anxious Adam is both terrified by and enthralled with Denver’s commanding presence. When hesitant flirting turns into domineering sex on the laundry folding table, both parties walk away wanting more.

So, I’ll be frank and say that this just wasn’t for me. It’s m/m, which I keep trying and not liking. It’s also BDSM erotic romance, which is really a hit or miss sub-genre for me with mostly misses. It has a bunch of disability cliches, some problematic token characters and a frustrating tendency to info dump (I found one bit of dialog that was a single 210-word paragraph). While I was engaged by the story when I was reading it, all I remember of it are my criticisms. This review won’t be much fun.

First things first, I was frustrated by the characterization of Adam. He has obsessive-compulsive disorder and struggles to control his anxiety and panic attacks. I know nothing about living with anxiety, so I can’t speak to how genuine a portrayal this was or wasn’t, but I did grow impatient with how it defined his character. Everything he does or likes is because of his OCD. He’s into entomology because the logic of science works with his anxiety. He lives alone because the guests his former housemates had over triggered his panic attacks (and because his ex was a gaslighting, abusive dickhead, but that was also tied into his having OCD). He enjoys D/s sex with Denver because it calms his anxiety. He resists forming a relationship with Denver because he feels his anxiety makes him undesirable. He meets his only friend when she talks him through a panic attack. A climactic scene that reunites Adam and Denver after their black moment involves a panic attack that sends Adam to the emergency room. I don’t think there’s a single scene that involves Adam that doesn’t also involve his OCD. His personality was “has OCD”. Like I said, I don’t have this experience, so maybe this is the life of someone with OCD. Maybe every single moment of every single day is colored by anxiety and panic, but I find that doubtful.

Next, I had some problems with how two trans characters were introduced. The first one you meet is Louisa, a thirty-something trans woman who talks to Adam while he has a panic attack in the school’s cafeteria.

There—again, the voice dipped too low, unmistakably this time, and the disparity made Adam frown and increase his focus, trying to figure out what was going on. His vision began to clear as his breath steadied even more, and he became aware he was sitting on a bench beneath the coat racks, staring into the beautiful made-up face of a woman who appeared to be in her early thirties.

With an Adam’s Apple.

Everything settled into place, and Adam’s eagerness to be welcoming to his transgender rescuer overcame his need to dissolve into panic. “Oh. Hi.” He forced a wavering smile. “Thanks.”

The woman rolled her eyes, but her mouth twisted in a wry smile too. “You’re cute, but you can wait until after your attack is over to reassure me you won’t freak out that I’m trans.”

The second character is the kink-positive therapist Louisa suggests Adam see instead of his other therapist.

The new therapist, to Adam’s relief, was great. To be honest, Adam thought the fact that he was trans only added to his understanding, like maybe only someone who had traversed the gender line could have the kind of empathy he did. Sig got some of the challenges of being male that the best educated and most well-meaning female therapists never could, and yet he had the same kind of empathy and instinctive compassion that in Adam’s vast therapeutic experience came a little easier to women. Maybe that was his own set of stereotypes talking, but whatever it was, he was glad for it, because Sig was on track to being the best therapist Adam had ever had.

What bothered me about their introductions is how the author highlights their otherness. Louisa’s masculine features are emphasized – her Adam’s apple, her deep voice – and the trans man therapist, Sig, looks like a guy but is compassionate like a woman. I get that the gender binary doesn’t fit everyone and that not everyone fits in one slot or the other, but it feels wrong to emphasize the feminine traits of someone who does identify as male or the masculine traits of someone who identifies as female. It feels like gender essentialism to me, especially since no one else’s gender presentation was mentioned. That Louisa’s only role in the novel is to make good things happen for Adam didn’t help things any. She felt a lot like a token prop to me.

Finally, I could take or leave the romance and the sex. I did like that Adam was an active negotiating partner and that Denver wasn’t the wise, all-knowing Dom acting as Adam’s caretaker. They’re a legit partnership where they complement the other’s strengths and weaknesses. Denver has some problems of his own that have been holding him back and Adam helps him face them and learn to work with them. But, because of how everything is defined in relation to Adam’s OCD, the sex felt like therapy to me, and I’m just iffy on BDSM as therapy. Eh, YMMV.

Final Assessment: Not bad, I guess, but not for me. C

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An ice hockey fan from north of Boston and the genre's most beloved troll, Ridley enjoys reading contemporary and historical romance, as well as the odd erotica novel. As someone who uses a wheelchair, she takes a particular interest in disability themes.

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2 Responses to “Dirty Laundry by Heidi Cullinan”

  1. Merrian

    I read this when it first came out and even though I read a lot of m/m I found myself having similar reactions to yours and concern about the same issues. I think I would go so far to say that I like early Heidi Cullinan books more than these later ones. There has been a tonal shift in the writing that is far more didactic than I remember in Special Delivery or the Etsey series.

  2. cleo

    I’m a big Heidi Cullinan fan. I read this when it came out and I really enjoyed it – it pushed all of my “h/h rescuing each other” buttons and I kind of just went with the rest of it. But it hasn’t held up that well the more I think about it. This review kind of clarified some of why that is for me.

    I definitely agree that Louisa only existed to help Adam – she didn’t have her own character arc. I found Denver to be too good to be true as well, at least in the beginning, although I liked his development over the course of the story. And the initial meet cute requires a huge suspension of disbelief.