I admit, even though I absolutely adore everything I’ve read by Courtney Milan, I had a teeny moment of hesitation about picking up Trade Me. I’m usually not interested in contemporary romance, and “New Adult” as a genre name irrationally bugs me. I’m so glad I decided to check out the first chapter when she posted it on her website, though, because I was instantly hooked. And of course the full book was amazing too. I should never have had a doubt.
Trade Me starts with a scene that’s all too realistic. Tina Chen is rushing across campus in the rain trying not to be late for a seminar when her billionaire classmate Blake Reynolds speeds into the parking lot, splashing mud all over her lucky sweater without even seeing her standing there. Her day just gets worse when the day’s discussion turns out to be food stamps; unlike most of her privileged classmates, Tina actually knows what it’s like to live in poverty and receive assistance. She manages to grit her teeth through most of their patronizing arguments about how poor people are just lazy and are totally buying vodka with their benefits cards, but then Blake speaks up to say, “for the sake of argument,” that even if we are creating a permanent underclass of people who are content to have things handed to them instead of having to work, what’s the alternative? Letting them starve in the streets doesn’t really work either, and what would it say about people with money if they let that happen? Oh, honey. Tina finally snaps.
“I see,” I hear myself say. “So poor people are lazy and doomed, but we should help them anyway so that you can take credit?”
Tina then goes on to drop a mic on Blake in epic fashion, reminding him that since his dad’s a billionaire, he actually does know more than most of the class about getting something for nothing, but he wouldn’t last two weeks if they could magically switch lives. That shuts Blake up real quick, until the rest of the class turns on her and he finally has to tell them to lay off defending him; he’s glad she told him that he said something stupid. He catches up with her after class to apologize, but she literally doesn’t have time for it, since she’s trying to balance classes, homework, and a job.
Despite putting his foot in his mouth in epic fashion in class, Blake’s not actually a bad guy. Sure, he never really had to check his class privilege until he met Tina, but he’s been in the public eye since his father started putting him in ads for Cyclone Technologies when he was a toddler. Blake isn’t just a worthless socialite (or whatever the male equivalent word is; “playboy” is a totally different mental image). He works really hard at the company, getting hands-on to help develop new gadgetry. His father is already pressuring him to drop out of college and take over the company, but Blake, for reasons we don’t yet fully understand, is terrified by this prospect. To pacify his father, he reluctantly agrees to take charge of the upcoming launch of their new smart watch/video phone, codenamed Fernanda, but he can’t stop thinking about what Tina said about trading lives.
Tina is initially suspicious when Blake approaches her and suggests that they really do trade lives for the rest of the semester. She’ll get to move into his fancy house and drive his expensive car, plus for taking over his duties at Cyclone (to the extent that they can keep secret), he’ll give her an allowance equal to what he usually spends per month, coming out to $45,000 post-tax for three months. Meanwhile he’ll scrape by on a minimum wage job she finds for him and live in her apartment, which is an awfully generous way to describe the unheated garage miles away from campus that’s all she can afford, even with a roommate. While she still can’t fully understand why Blake is so desperate to escape his life, she agrees, with the condition that when the trade is over, so are they.
There’s one tiny catch, of course. In order to convince Blake’s father to give her a prototype Fernanda, which she has to know inside and out if she’s going to write the launch script, Tina has to pretend to be Blake’s girlfriend. And oh, if you enjoyed her setdown of Blake in class, you’re going to be screaming when she absolutely eviscerates Adam Reynolds — and earns his respect by doing so. The more Tina and Blake work together on the launch, the harder it is for her to deny that she’s attracted to him. She’s scared of what will happen if they get too close, but Blake isn’t what she expected. He admits that she caught his eye long before the incident in class, and the longer he lives in her shoes and sees what it’s like for her to not just be stressed about money for her own sake, but for her whole family, the more he realizes what a BAMF she really is. But will that be enough for them to actually make a go of it in the end, or are there just too many massively complicating obstacles for them to overcome?
What makes Trade Me different from a lot of other romance novels is that Courtney Milan loves to dig into real issues. Tina came to the U.S. from China as a young child after her father was tortured for practicing Falun Gong. Even now, her mother works in a bakery (and has had her creations posted on Cake Wreaks a couple of times, which made me laugh my ass off), but gives away most of the family’s money to help other Falun Gong practitioners navigate the asylum system. Other serious issues come up that are too spoilery to mention in a review, but they’re handled well. There is one uncomfortable moment when Tina makes an ass of herself regarding an incident in her roommate’s past, but she learns from it and they move on. (After all, no matter how well-versed you are in social justice issues, everyone slips and says something careless sometimes; it doesn’t invalidate everything else you ever did. Take note, people of Tumblr and Twitter!)
Whether or not you usually enjoy contemporary romance (or even romance novels, period), I highly recommend checking out Trade Me. I’m already looking forward to the sequel, which will dive into a kind of relationship that isn’t usually covered in mainstream romance. Again, spoilers!
I received an advance copy of Trade Me from Courtney Milan via Netgalley in exchange for my honest review. This post originally appeared at Persephone Magazine.