Controlled Burn

Controlled Burn - Erin McLellan Originally reviewed at Sinfully.

What a wonderful debut from Erin McLellan. Centering around 21 year old Joel and 23 year old Paulie, both juniors at college who have so much more in common than just winding up in the same class. Like any good New Adult story should be, it’s romantic and heartbreaking and has its fair share of angst and sex.

Joel is wracked with guilt over the death and subsequent outing of his first love Diego three years ago and he can’t break free from his memory and the loyalty he still feels to him. He blames himself for the accident that killed Diego, for outing their relationship and for all the horrible things that resulted. He has moved away from Kansas to Oklahoma and changed his name in an attempt to run from it all. Joel’s parents really dropped the ball after the accident and media circus that descended upon Joel when he was eighteen. Instead of offering him support and counselling, they piled on the guilt and accusations, lashed out at his homosexuality and pretty much blamed him for their divorce. Though his mother technically chose Joel over his father, she makes it clear that she is not happy about it. His father seems to be the typical bully and even when he seems to be offering an olive branch, his motives can’t be trusted.

Paulie grew up in a fringe religious community and at fourteen, his parents happily got rid of their disappointing sinner of a son, doing him a favor and delivering him to his Aunt Ruth and having no contact since. She has been a mother to him since, is loving and understanding, but that doesn’t erase the damage his parents have done and the slight hope that he may someday be a part of his family. I couldn’t help but fall for Paulie’s character from the first time he speaks.

As Joel and Paulie start spending time as friends and eventually as lovers, Joel can’t help but compare his relationship with Diego. Paulie is the opposite of Diego, out and a bit flamboyant, open with his emotions and proud to be with Joel. Paulie is full of optimism and light where Joel is constantly fighting the little voice in his head reminding him of how he is betraying his love for Diego with every new step he takes with Paulie. Joel has romanticized things with Diego even as he acknowledges that things were far from perfect.

Told from Joel’s POV, there is plenty of angst and the majority of the struggle is from within Joel. He is still severely suffering from the grief and trauma of Diego’s death and its aftermath. He is a character that desperately needed grief counselling, but instead got nothing but blame, guilt and shame thrown at him from everyone involved. The guilt still consumes him and his growing love for Paulie is feeding the flames. As if that isn’t enough, Joel’s mother is pushing for a family reconciliation over the holidays. There were some times where Joel’s thoughts were repetitive, but overall I enjoyed the way bits and pieces of his past came out in his thoughts.

There is a lot of sex in this book (some of it is quite steamy too!) but then again, both are in their early 20s and Joel uses it as a way to deflect questions, express the love he feels but can’t talk about and calm the turmoil inside. But that only works for so long. Paulie is smart and as Joel’s truths come out, Paulie sees more than Joel is willing to let on. I could feel the hurt of Paulie realizing bit by bit that he’s not the only lover in Joel’s heart and mind and how he sees it every time Joel pulls away. When the inevitable blow up of Paulie and Joel’s relationship occurs, it certainly didn’t happen the way I expected it to. When it does occur, it was painful and the hurt cuts so deep on both sides.

While there is plenty of angst there was also a lot of lightness and fun. Joel and Paulie get along so well both before they hook up and after and Joel’s roommate Travis is a delight whenever he’s on page. Paulie’s aunt and sister welcome Joel with open arms and he is able to let himself really relax around them, something he would never have been able to do with either his own or Diego’s family. There are so many layers to each character, not just the main ones, but Joel’s parents and Paulie’s family as well. Nobody here is perfect (except maybe Aunt Ruth) and they all felt very real. The Midwest landscape comes alive in the writing as well.

The story ends quite happily after all that pain. I’ll be on the lookout for the next book from Erin McLellan, and I certainly wouldn’t mind if it happened to be about Travis and the red headed cowboy he’s been pursuing.