Courtney Milan, $4.99
Contemporary Romance, 2015
Now, don’t groan – Courtney Milan dipping her toes into new adult isn’t necessarily a bad thing. If Trade Me is anything to go by, the author has the melodrama and the vicarious escapism elements down pat. I’m as old as Elvira – give or take a few decades – but even I feel like I’m once again a young adult while reading this story. Of course, this is a happy version of those days, so no pimples, no societal awkwardness, none of that nonsense. And, unlike other new adult authors, the author doesn’t introduce cheap a-dollar-for-fifteen gimmicks to pass off as angst, so no, no sexual abuse in the past, no evil mothers driving handsome boys to get tattoos and become boxers, and not a single evil blonde in sight. Instead, I get a story that makes me sigh and think, “Wait, has it been that long since…?”
Tina Chen is a typical first generation American Chinese – her parents came to San Francisco from China after successfully gaining asylum, and she’s their eldest daughter born in the country. Alas. the family is having problems making ends meet. Her father has an injured leg, and her mother seems more into using what little money they have to help other people when they could use the money themselves, and Tina is slowly driving herself crazy trying to scrimp and save so that she can send home money from her part-time job. And then, she learns that her mother uses the money to finance a friend’s petitioning for asylum when Tina’s sister needs her ADHD meds. It’s a matter of time before Tina explodes, heh.
In her class is Blake Reynolds. He’s worth about a billion dollars, thanks to him being the only son of a self-made billionaire who does things like creating and selling cutting edge gadgets that cause fedora-wearing neckbeards to queue up for three days in order to be the first person to touch the gadget in question. Blake does the biggest mistake any straight, white, wealthy male could do in a social study class in a San Francisco educational institution: he speaks up. Tina decides that his blithe response with regards to the subject of food stamps is the last straw on an already bad day, so she generally launches a whole lot of Tumblr-speak on the poor guy. Okay, to be fair, Tina does make a lot of sense here, so it’s not a knee-jerk “check ur privilege cishet white male scum, all cis white ppl must die, trans genderfluid demifae asexual polysexual aromasexual Narutokin 4ever!” response from a typical sensitive Tumblr princess. I mean, Ms Milan didn’t even use the word privilege, fancy that.
I know this is fiction when her classmates support Blake instead of her. Or maybe not, as we all know sensitive Tumblr princesses may claim to be trans political lesbians who hate all straight white cis-males, but put them within a foot of a halfway famous straight white cis-male like Benedict Cumberbatch, and they can’t wait to rip the eyeballs out of one another to be the first and only to hump the guy’s leg. Still, it’s a start of a beautiful relationship as Blake and Tina decide to swap places so that they can both experience how the other person live and understand that the grass isn’t always greener over there. Naturally, poorer people are wealthy in love and relationships – well, at least Blake thinks so, since it’s always been him and his father, and the two of them have a relationship best described as complicated in a non-incestuous non-Facebook way. Tina learns to appreciate that rich people are humans with issues too, so it’s all love and happiness passed over from happy people to happy people, just like that song REM did with Kate Pierson.
The whole thing is quite a sac of bollocks, if you ask me, because I don’t care if the grass on the other side is blue, pink, green, or covered with Agent Orange – for a few billion dollars, I’d use the money to buy a new lawn and a whole boat of happiness. I’d take Blake’s life over Tina’s every time. What, me, cynical? I guess that’s why I don’t have new adult stories written about me – I’d use the opportunity in this plot to seduce Blake’s father, get myself written into the will, make sure that no lawyers can find fault with that will, then seduce Blake, drive him jealous over his father’s attention to me, and then have Blake kill his father. No, Trade Me is certainly a better story.
Here’s the thing: I had an email notification from the author’s automated mailing list system in my inbox when I woke up this morning. I bought the book from Smashwords, prayed that the author wouldn’t go full social justice warrior on me, and began to read. I couldn’t stop reading until I reached the last page.
I admit that a big part of my enjoyment may be very personal in nature. I’m Chinese, and I know I’m an overbearing know-it-all like Tina when I was her age, and her relationship with her mother mirrors mine. I am reminded of relationships with my loved ones, those who are still living as well as those who are gone, and I have to smile at these memories. Despite the fact that the author often resorts to sitcom-style Asian-family-in-America stereotypes here – the quiet father who sees and understands more than others ever suspected, the bossy and prickly mother who is stubborn yet so easily hurt, the resentful eldest child who wishes that she is not boxed in by her parents’ behavior or expectations – there is some truth to these stereotypes, and I find myself enjoying these moments.
And Blake. I can be cynical and say that he’s just another Perfect Boyfriend Doll who exists to make the serious and sensitive heroine feel loved and cherished, but it’s hard not to find his bank account sexy. Him being so good means that his bank account is ten times more sexy than usual. He and Tina have some really good sexual tension and prime chemistry going on here, and I will never look at NDA forms the same way again. As a result, this is a fun, charming, and hot romance between two characters who feel just right together. Even if Blake is tad ideal in how he can always say and do the right thing without getting even a hair out of place, I’m having a good time.
Trade Me, however, unravels pretty quickly and badly when the author attempts to introduce some angst into the later half of the story. All of a sudden, it seems like everyone and his grandmother have issues, and they are all solved in a manner best described as 1974 ABC Afterschool Special. It’s somewhat like this.
Man: Honey, you’re right. I have a problem, and I need to seek treatment.
Woman: That’s right, sweetheart. Admitting that you have a problem is already half the battle won.
Man: I’d get well in no time! Treatment is smooth sailing all the way, so thank you honey, for encouraging me to seek help.
Woman: I love you, baby.
Man: I’m so sorry I have a problem, honey.
Woman: No, baby! It’s never your fault! It’s my fault, for not seeing your silent cries for help. I was so selfish, so… so…
Man: No, darling, don’t blame yourself. You’re so intelligent, smart, sexy, and I love you for your brain as much as your body. I respect you, darling!
Woman: And I love you too, sweetheart. You’re so strong and handsome and well-hung, and you are also gentlemanly and respectful of me!
Man: Oh, look, the whole world is crying happily and clapping for us. They think you are so wonderful.
Woman: No, baby, they think you are the wonderful one.
Man: We are both wonderful! Let’s kiss for the perfect Instagram shot!
Isn’t that sweet? Or horribly theatrical in all the wrong ways, depending on your threshold for this kind of thing, I guess. The characters start talking like they are taking turns playing shrink and patient, and yet, psychological issues are overcome in a cheerfully pain-free Stepford Alcoholics Anonymous way that I actually find the whole thing… creepy.
So, I’d give the first half of Trade Me four oogies and the second half two. That means this book ends up with three oogies, at the end of the day. Still, it’s quite a happy day, so there’s that.