Miss Bates doesn’t know how to write about a good book she disliked, not hated, not DNF-headed, not snark-inspiring, but a desultory slog, like eating a flavourless oatmeal biscuit. Partly, she attributes her response to the unappealing conventions of the New Adult romance sub-genre: the college scene, protagonists’ callowness, first-person narration, and HFN. New adult romance elements Miss Bates’ reader-self dislikes. Nay, avoids. She wasn’t well disposed to Milan’s Trade Me from the first solipsistic notes of “I” and “my”, but the issues were engaging, questions of wealth and privilege, the pressures on immigrants’ children versus good ole wealthy established American families.
Trade Me is, at least initially, a romance of economic realities. Californian heroine Tina Chen, computer science and chemistry college student, second-generation Chinese-American, struggles to get through school, pay rent, groceries, and help her parents out financially. Her mom succours persecuted Falun Gong members seeking asylum in the US, her dad’s on work disability and sister, with ADHD, requires pricey medication. Tina is poor: she can’t afford to do anything but survive on a shoe-string budget, working part-time and studying the rest. Hero Blake Reynolds is the only child of one of the wealthiest, most influential men in the US, owner of an innovative tech company, Cyclone. Unlike Tina, who has eleven dollars to her name, Blake is worth billions. During economics class, Blake makes privileged, ignorant remarks about people on food stamps. Tina retorts with hard truths about poverty that point to Blake’s cluelessness and presumptions. Blake is chastened and apologetic. He’s also nicer and more down-to-earth than Tina expected. He has the hots for her and she for him. He proposes a “trade,” to learn something about each other: swap lives. He lives in her unheated converted-garage apartment on her budget and she gets his Tesla, condo, and a hefty allowance. For Blake, he gets to be close to Tina while anonymity helps him figure out a “problem” plaguing him. Tina reciprocates the attraction, but also sees an opportunity to help her family.
Miss Bates liked the concept of “the trade”; it had potential, especially after Tina sticks it to Blake as he pontificates on the “politics of the safety net.” Miss Bates welcomes/enjoys political content in romance and looked forward to the skewering of economic inequalities. What she found instead was good old-fashioned “poor little rich boy” melodrama (though she still liked Blake). Blake wasn’t a bad sort and he tried to learn what he could from Tina. Nevertheless, this was a romance novel, as far as innovation was concerned, that peaked early. Here’s some good stuff, as Tina socks it to Blake and his people-should-work-for-what-they-get food stamp argument:
My voice is shaking. “When have you ever been on food stamps? When have you ever had to work for anything? Who gave you the right to grant that poor people are lesser beings for the sake of argument? And who the hell are you to say that the only important thing is not whether people actually starve to death, but how the world will judge the wealthy?”
His face goes white. “I work,” he says. “I work really hard. It’s not easy – “
“It’s not easy being Adam Reynolds’s son,” I finish for him. “We all know how hard you work. Your dad told the entire world when he put you in charge of his interface division at the age of fourteen. I’m sure you’ve worked a lot of hours, sitting at a desk and taking credit for what other people do. It must be really hard holding down a part-time job that your father gave you. I bet it leaves you almost no time to spend your millions of dollars in stock options. Hey, I guess I was wrong. You do know what it’s like to get something in exchange for nothing. You’re an expert at it.”
His lips pressed together.
“But it doesn’t make you an expert on poverty,” I tell him. “I was up until midnight last night. I live five miles away, because I can’t afford to live in Berkeley. It takes me forty-five minutes to get to class. How long did it take you to park your BMW in the Chancellor’s spot?”
He looks at me, his eyes wide. “It’s …” He shakes his head. “It’s not a BMW.”
Blake breaks down in the face of Tina’s mundane misery: not ennobling, just grinding and really, really hard. “I work really hard” and “It’s not a BMW.” How pathetically his argument collapses and how well Tina calls him on his ignorance: what defense can he have, child of privilege and wealth? Miss Bates read this opening and thought, YES!, this is going to be very very good. Tina’s righteousness comes from where she stands: she’s living it; her poverty is not theoretical. Blake’s rebuttals to her experience are lame because they come from his prejudices and erroneous assumptions. When he proposes “the trade,” he offers good will, demonstrating he’s trying to bridge the gap by living her life. One of the novel’s thematic strengths is that Blake cannot: no matter how abjectly he lives, or how many Kraft dinners he consumes, he knows when he wants to return to his life of privilege, he can … in minutes. Tina, on the other hand, never even tastes of his life. This was psychologically astute of Milan: because Tina, like many immigrants’ children, is too fearful, too insecure, has lived carrying the family for too long to relax, let go, or enjoy … to ever feel safe in whatever temporary security Blake’s “trade” offers.
Once the trade is in place, however, the novel went downhill for Miss Bates. There be reasons. Tina and Blake were more compelling as antagonists than friends and lovers, witness the passage Miss B. quoted above. Once they stand in each others’ shoes, they are lifeless, especially Tina whose characterization is neutralized. Moreover, Blake’s “problem” (Miss Bates won’t spoil, but it’s obvious what it is by the novel’s first quarter) and his loving, but volatile relationship with Adam, his single-parent father, inflate in importance. Both Tina’s and Blake’s thorny relationships with a parent take precedence over their romantic relationship. Miss Bates couldn’t stand Blake’s foul-mouthed, seemingly loving father, with his demands, bluster, and unending drive to make a better gadget and market it. Tina’s refugee-defending, Walmart cake-decorator mom may be Miss Bates’ favourite: full of righteous indignation at injustice, possessed of a heart of gold, and expansively generous. Next to these two, Tina and Blake pale: their earnestness, puritanical black-and-white universe, youthful, mistaken asceticism combine to make how they deal with their parents dominate their romance. Trade Me isn’t a terribly romantic novel; (it’s got sex scenes, rest assured). Miss Bates found Trade Me‘s ending its greatest weakness. What began as an absorbing romance of class warfare turned into a morality tale about the ills of work alcoholism and the drive to compete, succeed, and come out on top. One could argue that is the novel’s critique: the corrosive and corrupting effects to character of the American work ethic. Yet, while Blake and Tina seem to reject this world, they salvage Adam Reynolds’ campaign to launch a new, revolutionary product. This takes over from any working out of their identity, or relationship. Plot dominates character.
It could be Miss Bates is finding fault with Trade Me for exemplifying NA romance’s conventions. Her dissatisfaction may be its failure to fulfill her thematic preferences. Suffice to say she didn’t enjoy Trade Me, but her readers may. She quotes Miss Austen to describe her reading experience as one of “tolerable comfort,” Mansfield Park.
Courtney Milan’s self-published Trade Me is first in the Cyclone series; it’s been available in e and paper formats since January 20th and may be found at your preferred vendors. Miss Bates is grateful for an e-ARC, via Netgalley.