It might seem like I blog a review of every book I read, but I don’t. For example, as a research exercise for my NaNo-reboot project, I read 10 romance novels in January, and I didn’t review a single one here. I did rate them on Goodreads and basically kept saying,
It’s pretty good … for a romance.
The fact is, the statement is often fair. Romances are usually like junk food, giving a sugar high that leaves you craving more, but failing to provide the nutrients that make quality literature so satisfying. By definition, romances conform to tropes and lack the layers of complexity found in literary fiction and many other genres. But occasionally you read a romance novel that’s pretty good without a caveat.
For a while it seemed like the writers on Smart Bitches, Trashy Books would find a way to work Courtney Milan’s newest release Trade Me into every post. When the author showed up on Book Riot‘s list of feminists in genre, I downloaded the book.
On the surface, Trade Me conforms to genre standards. Check the back cover copy:
Tina Chen just wants a degree and a job, so her parents never have to worry about making rent again. She has no time for Blake Reynolds, the sexy billionaire who stands to inherit Cyclone Systems. But when he makes an offhand comment about what it means to be poor, she loses her cool and tells him he couldn’t last a month living her life.
To her shock, Blake offers her a trade: She’ll get his income, his house, his car. In exchange, he’ll work her hours and send money home to her family. No expectations; no future obligations. But before long, they’re trading not just lives, but secrets, kisses, and heated nights together. No expectations might break Tina’s heart…but Blake’s secrets could ruin her life.
See? Millenial Pretty Woman, right? Except Milan subverts the tropes in significant ways.
Let’s start with the heroine, Tina Chen. This Cinderella is a Chinese immigrant (a rare heroine in any genre) but you’ll never catch her kowtowing. Tina is all-business, takes no shit and gives no fucks. She would make a pretty good alpha hero, actually. She knows what she wants, and will not let anything stand in her way of getting it.
Now our sexy billionaire hero. Blake is not the inexplicably muscle-bound CEO you’re used to. He’s cute and charming, but he’s a long-distance runner and actually too skinny. He’s lived in the shadow of his entrepreneur father his whole life, and instead of the entitled playboy you expect, he’s loaded up with all the insecurities and self-esteem issues we usually dump on heroines.
Milan sidesteps a lot of the technical errors that romance readers usually have to forgive. I never tripped over awkward phrasing or embarrassing dialogue, which I had come to expect from romance. At the sentence level, her prose is transparent. As a storyteller, Milan doesn’t just describe the characteristics of her leads; she shows Tina doing the math on every decision and litters Blake’s dialogue with apologies.
Romance requires that the romantic relationship remain central at all times, but Milan manages to give the characters fuller lives than most romantic leads by developing relationship subplots with friends and family. Good secondary characters take a story to the next level – and these characters are as fully developed as many protaganists.
Tina’s transgendered best friend and roommate avoids being a mere twist on the “gay best friend” trope by having problems and issues of her own instead of just listening sympathetically. Both Tina and Blake have delightfully flawed yet attentive parents who provide unconditional love and inspire frustration in equal measure. It is clear each of the parents would lay down their life for their child, but whenever lives are not at stake they are focused on other interests that sometimes impact their children’s lives. Blake’s father and Tina’s parents are every bit as interesting as Tina and Blake.
Many people read romance for the element of fantasy, but I read fantasy for that. To me, there is nothing romantic about inequality. I used up most of my suspension of disbelief on John Woo movies in the 90s, so my response to most Cinderella stories is to suspect that the billionaire will hold Cinderella’s origins against her after the curtain closes and expect her to be forever grateful and subservient because he rescued her. Milan creates a satisfying balance of power early in the book when the characters are negotiating the trade. Tina has the same impression of Cinderella that I do, and tells Blake the stakes are too high – she won’t play. He responds, “In any negotiation, the person who can walk away holds the power.” Because we know Tina has the strength to walk away, we can read the story with the characters on equal footing.
But the biggest strength is that Milan does not excuse her characters from real life. She established an equal balance of emotional power, but both characters are aware at all times of the Matthew Effect; they can never be equal in the world. Blake will always benefit from privileges that Tina has already missed out on, and that is something they will always have to deal with. The way that Milan deals with money and privilege is more clear-eyed and down-to-earth than anything I’ve read in romance. In fact, the only other book I’ve read of any kind I can think of that deals as intelligently with the relationships of haves and have-nots is the Man Booker Prize-shortlisted Heliopolis by James Scudamore.
So yeah, Trade Me is pretty good.