Guest Review: Kulti by Mariana Zapata

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This guest review is from Poppy, who picked up Kulti after it was featured in a previous books on sale. This book is frequently recommended when it comes to sports romances and is an autobuy author for many readers, so we’re happy to finally have a review for it on the site!

I saw the sale for Mariana Zapata’s Kulti a few weeks ago on this site and one-clicked it pretty quickly. The story blurb promised some of my favourite blends of catnip: strong heroine with cool-ass career, competence pr0n, slowburn romance and, most of all, a broody hero. Yay. Plus, I used to watch soccer games with my dad in my youth, and was looking forward to getting reacquainted with the game. I downloaded the book and happily read through the night. #badbookdecisions

Up till around 4am I was enjoying the story. There wasn’t quite as much about tactics and on-field action as I would have liked, but that wasn’t a big deal. There were many other things to love: Sal Casillas’s sense of self-worth and drive, her relationships with the people in her life, and of course, that delicious slow-cooker romance with her assistant coach, the eponymous Reiner Kulti.

I’ll talk about what happened after 4am in a bit, but first I want to give the book due credit for the parts that I truly enjoyed. First, Sal’s strong sense of self (wow, all that alliteration was unintended). It was refreshing to read about someone who could look at her body and say, eh, I like it. More than that – she celebrated her body for being “a sign of the craft I’d been working on my entire life. It was my machine: short torso, wide-ish shoulders and muscular thighs. They were mine, and I wasn’t embarrassed of it. I was happy with myself… I needed my legs to take me to the end of the universe and back, and they did.” Preach it, sister!

I also loved Sal’s unapologetic ambition. She literally goes the extra mile by going for 8km runs before soccer training, and works a second job so that she can afford to keep playing pro-soccer. Her second job in landscaping is also something she likes, and she gets along well with her boss. The lady has got life figured out.

Sal’s self-love also extends to the way she interacts with the people in her life. She recognises when Kulti was being rude to her (and also that she doesn’t deserve it), she cultivates strong friendships with her soccer teammates Jenny and Harlow, and struggles realistically with jealousy from other teammates. I also loved reading about her relationship with her family, especially the bond she has with her dad. There’s some sympathetic writing about her efforts to reach out to her younger non-soccer-playing sister Cecilia, who is trying to find her identity vis-à-vis her more successful siblings (Sal and her brother are both pro soccer players). I wished Cecilia, who is in a legitimately difficult position, was written in a less one-dimensionally “bratty younger kid” manner – I don’t wish to put in any spoilers, but read the scene on Sal’s father’s birthday dinner from her sister’s point of view and it takes on quite a different flavour. However, I do understand and appreciate that this is Sal’s story, and would therefore lean towards Sal’s feelings and perspectives.

In any case, Sal has got a fulfilled, exciting and meaningful life before she meets Kulti. I absolutely loved that. One commenter on the sale post mentioned that the coach-player dynamic was handled well, and I completely agree. It’s not everyone’s cup of tea, but suffice to say, the slowburn was totally worth it for me. And although the book is titled Kulti, it’s really about Sal – she and her career take centrestage with Kulti’s full, albeit gruffly-expressed support. Ok, some aspects of the romance did stretch my credulity a tad [here’s a spoiler: near the beginning of the book, Sal recounts the adoring, fangirl letters she sent to Kulti when she was a kid, and how he never replied, and now could never know of it since he has become her coach; at the end, it’s revealed that Kulti not only knew all along about her letters but had kept and framed them up]. Then again, it is a story about a multi-millionaire retired international soccer star meeting and falling in love with a not-very-known Women’s League player from Houston who supports herself with landscaping jobs after training, so I suppose credulity could be suspended anyway.

Now for the skeleton waiting in the spectator stands. Here’s the part I bumped up against at 4:01am (ok not really, but I’m adding a touch of drama):

I was busy spraying lines on the grass when I noticed Kulti speaking to two female teachers who would be working the registration table. He was gesturing at something on the sheet and they were nodding enthusiastically, which didn’t say much because he probably could have been telling them that he pooped golden nuggets and they would have been excited, based on the way they’d been looking at him.

Hookers.

And… hello slut-shaming my old friend!

(I also want to pause here to say that if someone did tell me he pooped golden nuggets I would be super excited. Second pause: oh Sal, I nod enthusiastically when the barista at Starbucks pronounces my name correctly. You probably shouldn’t read too much into that.)

Let me clarify that this example was not isolated; I quote it because it was the straw that broke the proverbial camel’s back. Here’s another example of Sal laying down a sorry-not-sorry judgement on her ex-boyfriend: “He’s slept around a lot since we split. I’m not one of these girls that think men who have slept with hundreds of women are sexy. That’s gross. I don’t loan my body out to just anyone, and I don’t like the idea of a bunch of girls knowing what someone I love’s penis looks like, you know?”

Another example:

Show Spoiler
Sal was accused of being a “home wrecker” because she went on two dates and kissed her ex-teammate’s estranged (they were separated) husband. She didn’t know he was her teammate’s ex, didn’t know he was not single – if they’re separated, I’d argue that he IS, and finally, just to make sure readers really know who’s the Good Girl here, they didn’t even have sex. Yet incredibly, a big enough deal was made about it that Sal lost her place in the national soccer team because her “Crazy Ex” teammate kicked up a huge fuss about the two dates.

Coming up against this type of attitude in a book that was overall so celebratory about female achievements and relationships is a bit like digging into delicious creamy lasagne and pulling up pieces of a cockroach on your fork. (True story!)

Using sex workers as shorthand for “bad women”, equating consensual sex with loaning out one’s body, constructing frankly improbable circumstances to prove the heroine’s “innocence”, setting up the Psycho Ex character as villain – that’s one wing, two feelers, and a bunch of freaky jointed legs.

While I didn’t finish the lasagne, or indeed the rest of the meal at that restaurant, I did finish the book, enjoying the romance whilst feeling disheartened and a bit betrayed. That would have been the end of things if not for a little debate I got into with a fellow non-romance-reading bibliophile friend. When I complained to her about the slut-shaming in Kulti, she asked with genuine bafflement, why on earth would you feel betrayed? You didn’t complain when you read The Human Stain or Lolita. Aren’t works of fiction supposed to hold up a mirror to bad human behaviour? Why should romance be different from other genres?

That got me thinking. I realise, prior to that conversation, I had not actively thought so much about what romance meant to me and why I have been reading it for so long. I still don’t have a perfect answer, but I think it could be something like this: for me, I don’t want romance to just hold up a mirror to bad behaviour. There’s enough of shitty behaviour in the world. This year has felt exceptionally tiresome. I want romance to be a safe space, a haven from toxicity, racism, sexism and pussy-grabbers. (I’m speaking generally here. All grabbing in this book was very consensual.) This is not to say that romance novels should avoid any mention of bad behaviour, but that I hope such behaviour would be called out or addressed as opportunities for growth. At the very least, the romance I read provides a refuge, a place to lay my head for a few hours without worrying about hidden cameras. At best, romance has a unique power for me: the power to make me hopeful and optimistic that the type of stories created within the genre perpetuates inclusivity and gathers a community of people interested in doing the same. Every romance novel has the potential for knocking out a brick from the Skyscraper of Toxic Masculinity (i.e. Trump Tower?) and building a warmer, safer space where bullshit gets barred at the door.

But having said all this, I’m honestly not sure if this is a fair expectation. I don’t wish to tramp all over authors’ creative licenses or make problematic assumptions about what other readers want from their reading experiences; I can only speak for myself and what I want from mine. Luckily for us, the happy thing is that even within the romance genre, there are many books to cater to everyone’s needs. We can all pick what we want from the shelves and head off to our respective little safe spots without stepping on anyone’s toes. In the words of The Bachelor’s remarkable Corrinne Olympios, “You do you. You go, girl. Imma do me.”

Me, in this case, will continue sending back plates of lasagne with unwanted bugs in them. Here’s wishing everyone Happy Reading in 2018!

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