Thursday, 5 February 2015

Review: Trade Me by Courtney Milan (Or, Courtney Milan: Goddess of Intersectionality)

5 stars

Trade Me (released 19/1/15) represents Courtney Milan’s first foray into the ever-burgeoning subgenre of New Adult romance.  For those not familiar with her, Milan has previously written romances set during the Victorian era and is notable for writing outside-the-box stories.  Far from the idle-aristocrat-meets-woman formula, her heroes and heroines are as diverse as a barrister, suffragette newswoman, small-town doctor, fortune-teller and researcher of plant genetics.  Drawing on a wide spectrum of human experience has made her a stand-out amongst historical romance authors, but I was nonetheless apprehensive that a change in genre would signal the end of her position on my auto-buy list.  However, I shouldn’t have worried, because Trade Me blew my expectations out of the water. 

In many new adult novels, the protagonists’ search to ‘find themselves’ in the ‘real world’ of college is shallow and uninspiring, but Milan deftly avoids this trap.  In fact, it was the depth and breadth of her characters that made Trade Me exceptional.  The Chinese-American heroine, Tina, is not only putting herself through university, but has taken on financial responsibility for her family.  While Blake – the son of a billionaire technology magnate – might seem to have it easy, he too is dealing with an array of issues.  When Tina speaks up during a class discussion on food dockets, savaging Blake and daring anyone to maintain their opinion of the working class as ‘lazy’ after experiencing their lives, she never expects him to take her up on her offer to trade lives.  The complexities of swapping lives – and the problems each has retained from their own – is compassionate and nuanced in a way rarely seen in romance novels, and literature in general.  The world the characters inhabit is clearly our world, with all the imperfection that entails. 

When I was perusing other reviews before writing my own, I noticed that some readers felt Milan had tried to tackle too many social issues in one book, or that there was just “too much going on”.  Ironically, the reason they gave Trade Me two or three stars is the reason I found it so refreshingly compelling, and that was the intersectionality that Milan took the time to develop.   

Like Ryan says so succintly, Intersectionality is the study or observance of the ways in which forms or systems of oppression, domination or discrimination interact.  It works on the premise that biological, social and cultural factors such as race/ethnicity, gender, class, ability, sexual orientation, religion combine to define how a person or group is perceived and treated. In Trade Me, Tina’s life and personality are influenced by a web of factors – including her Chinese heritage, her lower-class background and her family’s position as members of the persecuted Falun Gong philosophy.  To a certain extent, when Blake takes on Tina’s life, he is also taking on an awareness of his privilege relative to hers.  The beauty of Milan’s writing is in the way in which this intersectionality permeates the characters, settings and plot of the novel, without ever having it define them. Too often factors such as race and class are used as window dressing for stock characters or as a one-trick pony plot device, but Tina and Blake remain people above and beyond their social demographics, and the plot remains separate as well.  Rather than trying to fit too much in, Milan has woven together the many strands that makes each person unique into solid, three-dimensional characters.  In doing so, she blends the best of the romance genre and the best of reality to create a complex, emotionally satisfying story, and who can ask for more than that?

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