cover of TRADE ME by Courtney Milan

Book Club: Thought experiments around privilege, and more Trade Me thoughts

Apologies for getting this up late; I’ve been travelling back from WisCon (where I also praised Trade Me at length!).

So as you saw in my April post announcing Courtney Milan’s contemporary romance novel Trade Me as a GF book club topic, I love this book for multiple reasons. From here on out I’ll be indulging in spoilers, so, more after the jump!

Thought experiments about setting down the privilege knapsack

Earlier in our book club we’ve discussed “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas”, in which our title characters decide that the benefits they get from oppression are not worth the cost to others. And probably at least a few of you have also read The Just City by Jo Walton, in which Apollo wants to try out what it’s like not to be immortal. Both of those stories are speculative, but they point to an impulse similar to Blake’s in Trade Me: the desire to set down, across many different dimensions of privilege, what Peggy McIntosh termed the invisible knapsack of white privilege in 1988.

Some bits of privilege are stickier than others. And Milan relentlessly hits that fact, over and over, all the way into the deeply sarcastic “don’t do drugs (unless you’re as privileged as me)” newspaper column by Adam Reynolds. (By the way, if you enjoyed Adam, check out this excerpt from Milan’s upcoming book focusing on Adam.) Class privilege goes beyond one’s current circumstances into behavior, identity, locus of control, self-efficacy, and more.

What we glamorize

And Milan’s specifically in conversation not just with prince-and-pauper switch narratives but also with the billionaire romance genre, as she explains in an interview:

I think I said, you know, if I ever wrote a billionaire book, he would never buy her a single thing…..and if I ever did write a billionaire book, then I don’t know how I could stop from making fun of him constantly about, like, capital gains tax and, and all the many things that I find extremely, that make me queasy about billionaires, period. So – and then I said that, and I was like, but what if I wrote a book making fun of him?

How does an author write about billionaire life, the life the Reynolds family leads, without glamorizing it? Partly by having Tina just eviscerate Adam the first time they meet, and oh how satisfying that was for me to read. But I’m not entirely sure how Milan does it, really, and would like thoughts from readers on this point.

Power and safety

Tina, trying out Adam’s car, finds its power scary. Power is scary! We don’t talk about that enough! Fear and the search for safety, and the opposing impulses to hide in powerlessness and to wield power to acquire safety, run as themes through a lot of Milan’s work (as with so much genre fiction, accessible prose and fast-moving plot get the reader engaged quickly, and then the thought-provoking stuff really starts going). I appreciate that Milan does not gloss over the risk inherent in love:

“Love is never safe,” Tina repeats. “It’s weird. It’s magical. It’s the moment when you break through the dark shell that protects your heart and say, this, this person. I’m going to let this person in, let him come so close that he can hurt me more than I can possibly imagine. I’m going to let him hurt me.” She inhales. “Love is never safe.”
“And yet,” I say, “we do it anyway.”
“We do it anyway.” Her voice is a quiet echo of mine, but her hands close on mine.

I can identify specifically to some of Tina Chen’s experience — studying at UC Berkeley, and being at once proud and embarrassed of my immigrant parents — and for the parts where I can’t identify, like her working class background and her Falun Gong heritage, Milan makes it pretty easy to relate. (The Falun Gong backstory moved me to write a web toy, “Randomized Dystopia,” to help us think about how repression works and remind us of human rights that don’t get enough airtime.) Most deeply, perhaps, I feel connected, through my daughter-of-Asian-immigrants heritage, with the somewhat self-imposed constrant that I must do the “safe” thing, the feeling that my life is not my own to shape as I will. Love is not safe; we do it anyway.

What made me cry

The first time I cried in this book was when Maria gave Tina’s sweater back to her, dry-cleaned. And perhaps the hardest I cried was when Blake and his dad apologized to each other. Did you cry at anything?

3 thoughts on “Book Club: Thought experiments around privilege, and more Trade Me thoughts

  1. moonicamusing

    I remember crying, although I can’t remember at what as about half the book was binge-read one morning at 2am when I couldn’t get back to sleep after being woken. I guess that in itself is a compliment to the book, as I didn’t try very hard to go back to sleep once I started. There were several scenes that moved me, suffice to say.

    I don’t often enjoy first person PoV books, and even less so when that PoV flips between characters. I thought the writing a liiiitle clunky at first, but as the characters loosened up to each other so did the dialogue (imo).

    I loved the fact that a man was depicted as having an eating disorder. I loved that the romance wasn’t cheesy and cliche’d. I loved that Adam was shown as a “real man”, a “man’s man”, and yet a successful and extremely present single parent – and I think the author did manage to navigate the space between that and the “only good mother is a dead mother” fiction trope. Blake’s mother’s absence wasn’t, for me, so much a plot point as a starting point.

    Although not a literary tour de force, I did enjoy it, I’m glad I read it, and I was impressed with the author’s ability to write about a wide variety of societal issues without it ever feeling artificial or forced.

  2. ConFigures

    I didn’t cry, but I enjoyed it. It was still a bit of a fairy tale, but I liked how Tina held her own under VERY trying circumstances, whether in the classroom, meeting Blake’s father Adam, or being with her family. I was interested in the Falun Gong parts of the story. I liked that Tina was skeptical of Blake, and I liked her roommate best friend. I really liked it when Tina countered Adam’s dissing her for not wanting to run a startup. Really, not everyone wants those headaches, and that’s ok. It doesn’t mean they’re “settling”. It means they want something else.

    1. brainwane Post author

      Really, not everyone wants those headaches, and that’s ok. It doesn’t mean they’re “settling”. It means they want something else.

      A really good point; I had forgotten that specific riposte but yeah, so good! Jessamyn West once wrote about the need to recognize: “other people have different priorities in life and aren’t just bad versions of you”. For me, reading romance novels in general has been, among other things, an exercise in grokking that.

Comments are closed.