Sort-Of A Review: Courtney Milan’s TRADE ME

Trade_MeMiss 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.

21 thoughts on “Sort-Of A Review: Courtney Milan’s TRADE ME

  1. I enjoyed reading this review, Miss Bates. Would Trade Me have fared better outside the confines of the romance genre?

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    • That’s a very interesting question: maybe. Pretty pat answer on Miss B’s part, sorry. I guess TRADE ME might have fared better if it had followed through on its original promise as ideological warfare and sex. That might’ve been more fun. It might also have been more fun if foul-mouthed, driven CEO meets Walmart cake-decorator …

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        • She was so much fun: I wanted more of her. And I really want a Walmart cake decorator heroine. There’s even a great tidbit where she sends Tina a blog where she’s been listed as worst decorated cake winner. Tina is her humourless young self and it embarrasses her. The NA protags don’t know how to laugh. That’s another problem with the sub-genre.

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  2. I think Courtney Milan is a pretty good romance writer, but you’ve talked me out of this one. Maybe a nice little category instead! Speaking of which, one of the things I find interesting about the whole idea of “NA” romances is how much they are particular to very specific cultural notions about youth and love. These are the same age people who populated a several shelf miles of Harlequins in the 70’s and 80’s but this whole idea of a “new” adult, and a different life stage from just “adult” wasn’t there. Interesting, as this NA (vs YA, vs just “A”?) category seems to be exploding.

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    • It is most definitely a sub-genre that is exploding. It’s also definitely not for Miss B. It’s aimed, and I do applaud Milan for trying to do it differently, at the college-bound crowd. I can’t imagine that anyone else would be interested in reading these. Tina Chen may be poor now, but get through school, land a job and she’ll be doing just fine for herself. She may be poor, but she’s upwardly mobile and that takes away from what could’ve been a much more interesting romance. Also, other than JANE EYRE, I really really dislike these first-person narrators.

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  3. Ugh! I’ve tried NA in the past, and it’s not for me. Maybe it was just the ones I read, but they all seemed to feature repetitive story lines and a tendency to serialize the main characters’ relationship. I hated becoming invested in a relationship, thinking they’re a couple only to learn that they were separated by the next “installment.” It almost felt like reading a romance version of “The Perils of Pauline” — someone was always tied up on the railroad tracks about to be squashed (relationship-wise). I think I’ll stick to my historicals interspersed with the occasional category, a sprinkling of contemporary, and a dash of “woo woo” with a purpose. 🙂 And double DITTO to the “I/me/my” navel-gazing. 😉

    I’ve enjoyed Courtney Milan’s historicals, and I hope she’s not switching genres permanently. Her “Turner” series (Unveiled, Unclaimed, and Unraveled) are on my “In Case of Fire” shelf.

    “Slogs” are so diffucult. Difficult to finish, difficult to write about, difficult to find the silver lining, if there is one. It’s just not a relaxing, enjoyable experience. Sorry this didn’t work for you. But I love your description: “eating a flavourless oatmeal biscuit.” Yes, indeed!

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    • I really liked that Turner series too, especially the one with the fortune-teller heroine. Is that the first one? This had great opening potential, but the NA thing put it in tottering badness territory. And you’re absolutely right about investing in the characters as a couple and … boom … they’re broken up, or moved away, or whatever. Or it’s just HFN, as in this case.

      I don’t think “she’s switching genres” but I suspect she’ll be writing a lot more of this than of that other thing we like, at least for now. It appears that she’s writing Blake’s dad’s story, a character I abhorred, but hey, maybe she’ll redeem him. Maybe it’ll be in the 3rd person. Maybe there will be adults, fallible and messed up, but grown up.

      I really like your rom-reading recipe: it’s a great balance of things (histrom, category … HP!! … contemporary, woo-woo). I’d add for me, a little romantic suspense and some mystery with romantic elements.

      I love me some Scottish oatcakes, but only if I’ve slathered them with butter and jam. 😉

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      • Must have butter and jam! Otherwise, what’s the point? 😉

        I think the fortune-teller heroine was Proof by Seduction. That’s a really good book! My favorite Turner is Unraveled, more for the hero – Smite Turner (love the name!) – a magistrate with a phenomenal memory. He apparently never forgets a face which comes in handy if you’re Lord Justice. Miranda falls into his bed quick, fast and in a hurry, and for a “lone wolf” like Smite who has never had any close relationships, he asks her to be his mistress PDQ too. The “romance” part didn’t work so well for me, but I seem to be a sucker for *any* book with a tortured hero. 🙂

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  4. I really loved this one, mainly because it wasn’t like all the other contemporary romances I’ve read or whose blurbs I’ve read and avoided and also because I could relate to Tina. I wasn’t as poor as she was, but my dad remarried and had more kids after my mother’s death and the support I expected for my college expenses wasn’t forthcoming. I lived off of Social Security benefits I got through my mother (they don’t exist anymore for college kids) and what I earned, so in a sense my remaining parent was as economically remote as a source of support for me as Tina’s mom was for her, albeit for different reasons.

    Since my father’s family is Korean (both parents were immigrants; they lived in a two-room shack and raised and sold vegetables), I could relate to the Chinese/East Asian ethos. I’ve know the culture; I’ve known people who engage in guilt-tripping like Tina’s mom does, although for less altruistic reasons. When Tina’s father started talking about why his injury was a blessing, I knew exactly where he was going with it. So one of the great things about the book for me is the feeling that I am known, that someone like the younger version of me exists in the romance world instead of being swept under the rug and ignored.

    Another great thing about a Milan contemporary is that it’s rooted in the real world, not some fantasy one. I understand your reasons for wishing that Tina had continued to resist Blake and give him shit for his cluelessness, but I think (a) that level of banter/resistance is too easy and too expected; (b) Milan wanted characters that were more complicated than that; and (c) it would have made the romance less sweet and harder to pull off. That Blake is reasonable but clueless is an important part of the dynamic, especially since he is meant to be a foil to his father.

    I thought Milan did a good job with the parents, but I didn’t see them the same way you did. I appreciate what Tina’s mom was trying to do, but I felt she was as unfair to her daughter as Adam Reynolds was to Blake and Tina. Robbing Peter to pay Paul and putting Falun Gong above the needs of her family is a flaw. There are people who are movement activists who sacrifice their families and family life on the altar of the movement. Tina’s mother is one of those. I do not consider prioritizing the needs of strangers over the needs of one’s family, like her other daughter’s medications, to be praiseworthy or good parenting. (I don’t have a problem with her using her free time and her contacts to help with asylum cases as long as her other daughter’s needs arent’ neglected.) Tina should have spoken up long ago, but the way her mother dealt with money still struck me as irresponsible.

    As for Adam Reynolds, while I don’t find him utterly fascinating and praiseworthy the way some other readers do — I think what he did to Tina when they first met stank — I appreciate his candor, his search for excellence, and his willingness to drop everything and put Blake first when he finds out Blake needs his help. I loved that op-ed he wrote about drugs because it’s so true. But I’m curious and skeptical about Blake’s mother — I think she’s a surrogate of some sort, seeing as the book pretty openly hints that Adam is gay and Peter, the CFO who died, was most likely his lover — and just as I thought the parents of the female lead in Gone Girl didn’t take her interests or feelings into account when they started the book series based on her life, making Blake into a Cyclone mascot by featuring him in commercials at a young age was not in Blake’s best interests.

    I loved the sendup of the billionaire hero trope. I loved that Blake is more messed up than Tina. I love that the entire book is a deconstruction of privilege, particularly white male privilege and geek white male privilege. That mattered more to me than whether Tina got more licks in about food stamps. It’s a book that’s really grounded in business realities.

    That said, there are things that didn’t work for me, either. I thought it would have been helpful to dwell a little more on the contrast between Blake’s life and Tina’s. While I appreciate the inclusion of a trans character, in this book she was mostly window dressing. And as isn’t uncommon in Milan’s longer works, the pacing is wonky. I’m not one of those who thinks what happened near the end was intrinsically overly melodramatic, but it came out that way because Milan didn’t let the story breathe; she went from one dramatic moment to the next.

    As for the genre and style, while most het NA doesn’t interest me, a not insignificant number of the m/m romance novels I’ve read are college-set coming out and coming of age stories that could be classified as NA. I moved from slash fanfiction to m/m romance to het romance; present tense is common in fanfic, and I’ve even written some stories in present tense and fought with a beta reviewer over that once. I also have no particular objection to first person, and have discovered in my own writing that some stories simply cannot be told properly in third person, mainly because they need the intense centering of voice that only happens with first person. They’d be dull if told in third person. So while first person present tense wouldn’t be my first choice for writing a novel, it doesn’t bug me, and with the exception of one slipup with past tense, it worked for me.

    I also second the recommendation of Unraveled, which is also my favorite Milan novel. I liked the romance more than Kathy did, but that’s probably because I prefer more understated, less swoony romances. When everyone involved is trying to be pragmatic and reasonable, I give the relationship a better chance of survival than when everyone is floating on air and full of feels.

    Milan is working on her next historical series, The Worth Saga, and from what I understand, the first book in that series should be her next release. She was burnt out on historicals after finishing the Brothers Sinister and needed a palate cleanser.

    The next book in the Cyclone series, about Tina’s roommate Maria and a guy we haven’t met yet, should be out after that. A followup with Blake and Tina is next, then the book that includes Adam Reynolds’ story. While I understand why you want to put him together with Tina’s mom, who most certainly would take no crap from him and probably make him feel really small — I wonder how much money she would harass him into donating to the cause of helping persecuted Falun Gong members — since she’s married and he’s almost certainly gay, that’s not a very likely option.

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    • This is an enormously generous comment and I thank you for it. It was fascinating to read your perspective on the novel. You helped me feel more sympathetic towards it and understand what Milan was trying to do. I can’t honestly say my enjoyment of it would change, but I appreciated seeing it in a different light. I never thought Adam Reynolds was gay … there seemed to be some hint of mystery about the mother. But it’s entirely feasible in light of what you’ve written and I think that would make it all the more interesting. I’d be surprised that Blake wouldn’t be aware of this?

      I was also glad to hear about your identification with the heroine of the novel. She was really my favourite thing about it. And I really liked the mother: I didn’t think that she was malicious and I don’t think you do either. I do think she was utterly clueless as to how her daughter felt, or thought, or lived. I did think there was a lovely irony that Tina’s mother comes through for her at the very moment when Tina is in a position like her beloved persecutees. She knows exactly what to do and how to rescue Tina; the rest of the time, she’s pretty inept. I liked that she wasn’t all about family and making it in the new world: I liked her sufficient unto the day.

      Your perspective of the novel’s end was also very interesting. I liked the irony of Tina’s incarceration, but I hated the whole “Apple” watch sequence. It’s true what you say about it being grounded in business realities (and I love me some Apple) … and ideologically it made sense. It’s Tina’s mom with the cause, not Tina. I think Tina is going to make a better business partner for Adam than Blake.

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      • Hadn’t picked up on your comment about Blake not knowing about his father’s orientation. He could be non-reflective and clueless, or this could be Milan writing an unreliable first person narrator. Others have been known to do it! (I’m thinking of The Murder of Roger Ackroyd and Gone Girl.)

        The reason I say so, besides hints in the book itself, is that Twitter exchanges between me and Milan over my comment that “Adam Reynolds is a cross between Steve Jobs and Tim Cook” not only included a “can’t confirm or deny” type of statement but that she didn’t feel she hid the truth (she used the term “ball”) here and was surprised to see reader reaction include more than one interpretation. From what I’ve seen, other readers have come to the same conclusion I have. And for Milan to end the Cyclone series with a lengthy book about Adam (she’s said it’s likely to be the length of 3 Trade Mes) that is largely m/m would bring her full circle in terms of inclusiveness, something I know she strives for, is important to her, and which has shown up in other books (gay male parental figures in Unravelled, lesbian aunts in one of the Brother Sinister books, f/f secondary romance in The Suffragette Scandal).I think Courtney Milan writing a lengthy m/m contemporary romance (though it’ll probably have flashbacks to Cyclone’s startup days). will signal its full integration into romance, especially if its sex scenes are as frequent and at the same heat level as those in her other contemporary books. Others who’ve gone that route — Suze Brockmann, J.R. Ward — have been more tentative. There are plenty of new authors like Sarina Bowen writing mixed orientation series, but that’s more a matter of these things bubbling up from the surface. For an established NYT-best-selling author to write about gay men and lesbians the way she writes about everyone else is HUGE, and when Milan does it, it’s not going to be fetishized and it’s not going to be a fantasy for straight women because in large part Milan doesn’t write fantasies.

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        • “in large part Milan doesn’t write fantasies.”

          Funny, I think she really does! They’re just fantasies of a different type, without the negativity we usually bring to that word.

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          • I think we bandy about that word “fantasy” and romance way too much! I think it’s better, in romance, to delineate genre conventions, while we may argue over those and that’s the fun part, and leave “fantasy” to the “fantasy” writers. Milan writes romance, from the few I’ve read: I would argue that Trade Me isn’t a romance, though that genre thread is there, it isn’t the dominant one. AND IT IS SO TRUE that the word “fantasy” is more often than not used to diminish the genre and especially to diminish its readers.

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        • I never thought of Blake as an unreliable narrator, I guess, because I couldn’t establish what the basis of his “unreliability” would be? He seems intelligent …. & his peculiar eating disorder, which Milan has said is not anorexia, doesn’t make him unreliable, I would think. Nothing is terribly explicit in Trade Me and I didn’t mind that at all. I also figure, in retrospect, that Milan, in writing Trade Me, must have realized there was a lot more to say about these characters. I don’t think she deliberately obfuscated. But I also don’t quite understand why Adam would keep this hidden, if not secret, from his son?

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