C O N T A I N S S P O I L E R S !!!
Welcome to our
new now well established discussion feature! We’ve realized that sometimes a review isn’t enough. More and more, we wanted to share our thoughts using actual examples from the books we read… AKA ‘SPOILERS.’ It is, of course, rude to give away too much in book reviews, although it is a delicate line to walk. You don’t want a review to have no examples, but you can’t push it too far. There are always spoiler tags, of course… but we’ve wanted to write full-on essays about certain books, and tags aren’t good enough anymore. We need to write more down!
This time around, I, Ellen, want to discuss a book that I’ve re-read more times than perhaps any other novel. Yes, this post is a discussion of Kulti, by Mariana Zapata.
A Synopsis and Summary of Kulti
Sal Casillas, 27, is living her dream of being a professional athlete. She’s a forward for the Houston Pipers, a U.S. women’s soccer team. Sal’s grandfather was a South American soccer icon, and while Sal may have inherited his chops, there’s no question that decades of bruising hard work got her to this point. That, and Kulti. Without the inspiration of Reiner Kulti, a German soccer player, Sal might never have kept pushing herself.
Sal was a little girl when she saw Kulti’s soccer debut on TV, and the athlete immediately became her idol. Over the years, Sal sent fan mail, hung up posters in her room, and fantasied about their marriage. She was devastated when he made it legal with someone else, a Swedish actress (who he divorced soon after). Throughout it all, she remained his number one fan.
At the start of the book, Sal gets the shock of her life when Kulti, retired from playing for a number of years, signs on to the coaching staff of the Houston Pipers — her own team.
Her starry eyes are quickly dimmed, however, when she finds that Kulti is brusque, insular, and rude. Sal also discovers that Kulti is recovering from a bout of alcoholism, but after she helps him keep a night of relapse discreet, she receives no word of thanks. The tipping point comes when, after a match, Sal’s father approaches Kulti and is harshly rebuffed. Furious, Sal gives Kulti a dressing down, topping off her tirade with some over-the-top epithets. Sal’s outburst is reported by a rival teammate, but to her surprise, Kulti defends her and sends a letter of apology to her father. Later, after giving her former idol a few lifts home, Sal is bowled over to find herself one of Kulti’s few friends.
Before long, Kulti is tagging along to all of Sal’s activiteis — pick-up softball games, the doctor’s office, charity events, and even back home to visit her parents. Sal is dismayed to find her childhood obsession growing into the real deal… with the real person.
After the publicity team for the Pipers rebukes Sal for her public appearances with Kulti, Sal is surprised when the man himself unyieldingly comes to her defense, refusing to compromise his friendship with her. He flagrantly continues to flout the management’s commands of discretion. Consequently, Sal is soon alerted that the Piper’s intend to drop her from the team. She begins to shop for a new opportunity abroad.
By the time the Piper’s season is drawing to a close, Sal and Kulti are close to admitting their attraction. And when the Piper’s management pulls Sal from the final matches due to complaints of favoritism, Kulti barters an extension of his contract in exchange for Sal’s ban being lifted. In an attack of emotion, Sal expresses her doubt that Kulti wants to be with her. Kulti kisses Sal in protest, and informs her that he’s merely waiting for their coach/player relationship to expire before he makes his big move.
After the Piper’s final game, which they lose, Sal is disheartened to find that most of her teammates have turned against her. She’s lightened, however, by Kulti’s unwavering support and his admission that he plans to renege on his verbal agreement to keep coaching the Pipers. When they return to Sal’s apartment after the season’s close, the two begin their romance.
Before they get far, however, Sal admits, with extreme embarrassment, that she loved Kulti as a kid, and that he was her idol and obsession. To her shock, Kulti seems knowing. He shows Sal an image on his phone, a picture of the first letter she sent him, explaining that it was his first piece of fan mail. He reveals that he kept the letter in his various lockers throughout his career, and that it currently resides in his home in Germany, framed. He admits that he came to the Houston Pipers to coach who he though was the best women’s forward in the world — Sal — and that he only later discovered that she was the girl who wrote the letter. Destiny, he insists, was at play in bringing them together.
To close the book, we read a press clipping from years into the future, announcing “Salome Casillas Kulti’s” retirement from the sport. She was picked up by the women’s soccer team in Frankfurt, Germany, where she eventually served as team captain and led Germany to a world championship, playing for their national team.
When is an age difference okay?
In Kulti, the eponymous romantic hero is nearly forty and Sal is in her early twenties. Is this squick?
Nah. Their situation is actually pretty romantic. The age difference needed to be there to support the angle the Sal would grow up to marry her childhood idol. That hook, you have to admit, is really fucking cute. The revelation that Kulti kept Sal’s fan-mail before he even knew her? Guh! Destiny!
Then there’s the fact that Sal is attracted to older men. Not her like her father’s age, or in a sugar daddy capacity… just seasoned men. I can appreciate that. Younger men, or man-boys who haven’t been through shit, can be the most obnoxious beings on the planet. So yeah, why wouldn’t Sal be attracted to a fit soccer icon, who has gotten life experience, and whose posters used to grace her bedroom?
Moreover, Sal is independent and solid for her age — a woman rather than a girl. She is stable and in no way a prey candidate. That’s what usually grosses me out with spring/winter relationships. So often, the younger person involved is damaged or vulnerable. And the older partner is drawn to birds with broken wings. I’ve seen it in people close to me and it’s creepy and hair-raising. I’m happy to say that none of my squick alarms were triggered by Kulti. The romance is really not problematic or borderline in any way. It’s just two adults who love each other.
Why is sal so admirable?
Sal stands out of the crowd as a fantastic character, and a big part of that is how admirable she is. She’s one of the best soccer players in the world, but is humble to the core. She’s made it incredibly far, but had worked hard for every inch of her progress. She does charity work. She’s loyal to her friends. She has the cutest dad ever. (Okay, that doesn’t have to do with anything Sal does, but still.)
A big part of Kulti‘s success, I think, is you want Sal to get a happily ever after, because she deserves it so freaking much. She’s such a good person. And it makes perfect sense that a famous, rich icon like Kulti would fall in love with her. There’s no element of disbelief there. We’re in love with her, too.
zapata is the queen of slow burn
For anyone who doesn’t know, Mariana Zapata is a genius when it comes to slow burn romance. Her pairs smolder until the final chapters of her books, when they finally ignite to our infinite excitement and relief. Also, every single book she’s written features a slow burn, making her a true queen of the device.
Part of what makes Zapata so masterful, too, is that her romances rarely, if ever, seemed contrived or artificially prolonged. Overwhelmingly, there are solid emotional or external reasons that keep her pairs from moving in quickly. Because of that, we get to enjoy — or squirm from — a ton of sexual suspense. In a market where many books have consummation in the early chapters, Zapata’s jam is a breath of fresh air.
And I think, out of all her books, Kulti has the absolute best slow burn. And it definitely has the most satisfying ending.
the science behind ‘tsundere’
“Tsundere” is a Japanese term that describes a love interest who is cranky or mean, but eventually warms up to be a pile of emotional jelly. It’s one of my favorite tropes, and Reiner Kulti fits the term to a ‘T’ in this book. He starts out rude and curt, but opens up gradually, like an über-masculine flower.
I read a fascinating article just the other day that explains why so many people are drawn to this character formula, too. Apparently, a study was done where people watched footage of subjects describing their take on others they just met. The subjects who described a “change of heart,” where they disliked someone, but then warmed up to them, were overwhelmingly voted the most likable by the people watching the footage. Basically, human beings love it when they can see an arc of change in someone — when someone changes their mind, or adapts. It’s our nature to sympathize and admire that.
It makes sense, right?
us against the world
Another reason to love Reiner Kulti, is how when he decided he was friends with Sal, he was so in. Nothing and nobody could mess with her or with their unit. It’s an “us against the world” mentality, and it’s the biggest psychological perk to coupledom that I can think of. Who else melted into goo when he promised they would be a “team” forever?
It’s so satisfying to read about, especially when everyone seemed to be turning against Sal unfairly. Amidst all the injustice, Kulti was a still, devoted rock, ready to smash some kneecaps. (Seriously, the descriptions of his party fouls on the field during his career were some of the highlights of the book. The part where Sal recalls when Kulti’s teammate had a vertebra dislocated during a match, and in the aftermath the camera panned to Kulti, who was… tying his shoe. Omg…)
This may be a good time to mention that I think the Piper management storyline was underdeveloped. We know that the head of the Pipers management dislikes Sal rather intensely, but the only real insight we’re given into why is how Sal refused to let them make it public that she was the granddaughter of a famous South American soccer star. Because Sal’s team’s turning on her was such an important part of the plot, I think it deserved more page-space to let us fully understand the situation. Just my two cents there.
What that storyline, however undeveloped, accomplished, was giving Kulti and Sal a common adversary. Kulti was made famous by his shark-like attitude on and off the soccer pitch, so when he teams up with Sal and puts his considerable talents of intimidation to the task of defending her… Well, it’s just really satisfying.
the bottom line
I’m not exaggerating when I say Kulti is one of my favorite books I’ve ever read. Zapata has a sparse, matter-of-fact style that can be weird to get used to, especially if you’re used to reading more graceful books. At first, her writing can come across as unaccomplished. But I think it’s apparent, by the end of the book, that Zapata is a masterful emotional plotter. Each phase of Sal and Kulti’s slow grind into infatuation and love is written so organically. This book sweeps you away.