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Heidi Hart

By day, I'm a domestic violence prosecutor. By night, I read romance to restore my faith in love, relationships, and humanity in general. 

Refreshingly Authentic Twist to the Billionaire Trope

Trade Me -  Courtney Milan

Like so many other people, I love love love Courtney Milan and her historical romance (even as my patience with historicals has waned in the past year), and so when I heard she was writing a contemporary New Adult with, of all things, a billionaire hero, I gave Trade Me the Skeptical Side Eye even as I added it to my preorder auto buy queue. Billionaire? Really? Why would a woman as awesome as Milan -- she clerked for Justice Sandra Day O'Connor before giving up the law to write romance, which makes her pretty much my idol -- want to jump on that tired bandwagon? 


But Trade Me isn't your typical billionaire trope story, in which the billionaire lives a fantasy life and the heroine is a tragic Cinderella figure. Courtney Milan doesn't use class as a plot device: she really gets it. Tina Chen, the heroine, knows a million ways to cook rice (because she can't afford much else), and she knows that if she goes out with pizza and beer with friends instead of sending that $30 home this week, her little sister won't get her ADHD medicine. Tina works harder than everyone else, juggling a challenging double major (chemistry and computer science), an almost full-time job, and a long commute (because she can't afford to live near school), but she's no Cinderella. She loves her family and they love her, and she toils to serve her own ambitions rather than anyone else's. 


Blake Reynolds, the hero, is the son and heir apparent of the founder and CEO of a company that looks a lot like Apple. He's a billionaire (1.4 billion, to be precise, though true precision is impossible due to moment-by-moment stock fluctuations), but not in the impress-girls-by-taking-them-to-Napa-in-my-private-jet sense. Blake has a problems. One particular "problem" -- mild spoiler

(he has an eating/exercise disorder)

(show spoiler)

-- I had not encountered in a romance hero before, and I thought that aspect of the story was both original and skillfully told (though the resolution was a little too tidy). 


When you learn in the early chapters that the story, and the title, stems from Blake's scheme to trade places with Tina to avoid some of the stress in his life, you expect that Milan will play the poor-billionaire,-you-don't-know-the-meaning-of-'stress' card for laughs, but Trade Me subverts expectations at every turn. Very little of the book is actually devoted to Blake figuring out how to adjust to Tina's financial straits, nor to Tina reveling in the luxuries of Blake's lavish lifestyle. Though each learns valuable lessons about "how the other half lives", throughout their experiment both Tina and Blake remain true to themselves, both smart, sensitive, caring people paralyzed by their own fears. 


There was much of this story that I loved, starting with Milan's unflinchingly honest handling of class issues that we so often ignore in society. I loved Blake, who is all that I love about beta heroes without being stereotypical at all. I loved Tina's and Blake's parents, who are not just stock characters here but fully drawn, complicated, messy, interesting, funny, maddening people who love their children (the feeling's mutual) even as they are partly to blame for the fears that hold Tina and Blake back. I loved Maria, Tina's best friend and roommate, who is frank, honest, funny, and strong. I loved that transgendered is only one of many facets of Maria's identity (just as the fact that Tina is Chinese is only one of many facets of her identity), and I really, really love the news that Maria will get her own book by the end of the year (where do I sign up?). 


I didn't love everything, though. Throughout the book, I was bothered that Tina and Blake didn't ring true as college students. I know their above-average intelligence and life experiences would give both maturity beyond their years, but even so, they come across as thirty-somethings who just happen to be in college. I also didn't love the ending of the book, which was chaotic and fast and full of melodrama. Everything that happened fit with the plot, so it wasn't like the end came out of nowhere, but it was a shift in tone and pacing that I found disconcerting. 


This is not the best Courtney Milan I've ever read, but it's still very, very good. And if you're worried about the Billionaire Trope, like I was, don't be: one of the very best things about Trade Me is that Milan takes that ridiculous, overdone plot device and recasts it into something that is simultaneously entirely unique and refreshingly authentic.