Whether you’re looking for a hate-to-love romance, a semi-epistolary romance, or simply a romance with a seriously amazing heroine and somewhat arseholish hero (who does eventually work out how to behave like a decent human being), Hold Me is well worth a read.
NOTE: This review was originally written to be published prior to Courtney Milan’s appearance at ARRC earlier this year. Somehow it got lost in Kat’s email and while I’m trying really hard not to take it personally … I am failing spectacularly. But what this means on a very practical level is Kat hates me, my non-Gabby reviews, my screenshot style, and the colour purple. Anyway, on to the review —
I don’t exactly remember when I first tried to get Gabby to read a novel by Courtney Milan [ T | F | W ], but I do remember that it was hard going. She hadn’t learnt about my super humanly good book-pinions yet (and okay, maybe she’d also read and not loved one of Milan’s earlier novels). But somewhere along the way she decided to trust me, and since then we’ve developed a mutual love of reading, deconstructing and discussing Milan’s work.
So it seemed like a natural choice to do a duelling review of Hold Me. I mean, it’s a romance where the hero and heroine spend a substantial amount of time messaging each other (albeit, they don’t actually know each other’s identity beyond online pseudonyms). It’s all very dating-as-a-Millennial-when-you’re-also-kind-of-keeping-your-real-identity-secret. You know what I mean. You’ve been there.
What neither of us anticipated was that my thoughts and feelings about this book would kind of be too big to just text. And because I’m the one who types these things up, I’ve made an executive decision to write the review I want with occasional commentary from the texts Gabby sent me.
So first up, it’s important to acknowledge two things; the first is that Maria Lopez, the heroine, is a transwoman. The second is that Gabby and I are both cis women. What this boils down to is that our understanding of trans issues aren’t from lived experience, so if you are trans and have reviewed Hold Me please hit me up, because I would love to hear your perspective. Or if you’re not but have found a review by someone who is — please send me links.
One of the reasons I wanted to be clear about where Gabby and I are starting from is because I keep seeing readers, reviewers and bloggers calling Hold Me an ‘issue’ book and I’ll be honest, it pisses me off a little.
I think Milan went to considerable effort to ensure that Maria is a well-rounded character. The fact that she’s a transwoman is simultaneously incredibly important to her identity, and absolutely ancillary. Her emotional and mental well-being is deeply affected by past acts of transphobia, but there are no instances of transphobic behaviour from other characters on the page. Maria also doesn’t have any huge, introspective inner dialogues about being trans. She just lives her life like the total boss she is.
Which, to me, begged the question: if Milan has written an ‘issue’ book, what’s the issue? After discussing it with Gabby we came up the answer.
GABBY: Jay’s issues with women (which aren’t necessarily new in romance) are more of an issue than anything Maria has going on.
RUDI: Yes! Exactly what I was thinking! It way more about Jay needing to learn to get over being a sexist fuckhead who gives himself a pat on the head for having female friends.
GABBY: “I’ve got binders full of women!!” (Actually just one binder. No more!!)
RUDI: Ha! Honestly a lot of romance novel heroes could stand to deal with their sexism.
Which brings us to our hero, Aroon na Thalang (Jay). Jay is Maria’s brother’s friend, and a HUGE dick when Maria first meets him. He doesn’t like her because he thinks she’s frivolous, and girly (dear jeebus save me from people who think ‘girly’ is a bad thing), and vapid. This whole attitude hinges on the fact that she’s pretty and enjoys pop culture. And because Maria is no fool, she decides to hate him right back.
Things get complicated because Maria secretly runs a blog under the anonymous pseudonym, MCL, or Em to her equally anonymous online crush Actual Physicist, who is (of course) Jay. Like I said, you’ve been there.
For as much as the irl Jay and Maria dislike each other, Em and A. have serious chemistry. Most of their conversations have a flirtatious undertone, especially when they talk mathematics and science. AND IT’S SO DAMN BEAUTIFUL. Assuming you are not Gabby and can get past your low-key dislike of Jay.
GABBY: I think some of the shit he said to her was really gross and his justification for his non-sexist attitude was even worse. I know that men can have that kind of attitude but do heroes have to as well? Am I just upset because he’s acting like a regular guy?
RUDI: Except he’s not acting like a regular guy because he treats women ~online~ well. It’s the ones he knows irl he treats like garbage. Normally it’s the other way around.
RUDI: What I’m saying is, it’s not a perfect book but can we agree that the actual biggest problems people should be having with it stem from two particular scenes?
GABBY: Which ones?
RUDI: The first being very very early in the book when Maria, Jay and Gabe are walking together and Jay is somehow simultaneously walking in front of Maria AND checking out her arse …
GABBY: Oh lol!!! I think I recognised the absurdity of that in the periphery because now you’re saying it …
RUDI: How are you looking at her arse while setting the pace of the group Jay? How?
RUDI: Are you both walking backwards? Really fast?
GABBY: You’re amazing.
RUDI: You’re just buttering me up for when we inevitably disagree about this book.
GABBY: You also just have analytical and close reading skills (and yes I don’t want you to yell at me).
RUDI: So the other scene that irked me was THIS.
RUDI: WHO DOESN’T GET DESSERT ON A GOOD FIRST DATE??
RUDI: Dates with no dessert are BAD DATES.
GABBY: OH MY GOD I THOUGHT THE EXACT SAME THING NO WORD OF A LIE. THERE IS NO SUBSTITUTE FOR DESSERT. NONE. EVER.
RUDI: I knew you would understand.
GABBY: I’m mad just thinking about it.
GABBY: When I was in Paris, I almost got into a fight with my travel buddies because they weren’t dessert eaters.
GABBY: They were after their full mains.
GABBY: They hadn’t heard of the “dessert stomach”.
GABBY: I was outraged.
RUDI: That’s unacceptable and I hope you left them in Paris. Except not Paris because they don’t deserve Paris.
GABBY: We moved past our differences but it was never the same.
RUDI: That’s how I felt about this a little. Like I really like Maria but she betrayed me a little with that line.
GABBY: And fair call really. I just can’t see her as a non-dessert person because she’s so luxurious and indulgent in so many other ways.
GABBY: In completely positive self-affirming ways of course.
RUDI: Of course. Exactly.
GABBY: I think she’s amazing. I think Maria is an incredible heroine for real and I’m glad that she’s kickass and strong and confident but also vulnerable but that doesn’t define her.
RUDI: So much right? Like I spent the whole book cheering for her because she was just so … idek. I just love her and want awesome things for her.
RUDI: I know it’s unfair to compare Milan and SEP but like … THIS IS HOW YOU WRITE A STRONG WOMAN SEP (though of course it is not the only way).
I think it would be fair to say that Maria is in my Top Five Favourite Romance Novel Heroines of 2016. Maybe of all time. If you or someone you care about has ever been put through the wringer by family, you’re sure to recognise Maria. And for that alone I’d recommend Hold Me to everyone.
I’m saying this now because if you aren’t down with spoilers now is the time to cut yourself loose of this review and grab yourself a copy of Milan’s book.
I’m also saying it now because if you are down with spoilers I’m about to bring up the something that pissed off Gabby and I both. Substantially.
[ SPOILER ALERT ]
RUDI: Why doesn’t Gabe know that Maria is internet famous in his field?
GABBY: Mmmmmmmmmm that is weird
GABBY: Like Gabe and Maria are hyper close but not close enough for her to share this? But then I guess my siblings don’t necessarily know about this blog…
GABBY: And I would say we’re “close”.
RUDI: I suppose. And I know my relationship with my bro isn’t typical but I feel like Gabe doesn’t go in to bat for Maria nearly often enough.
GABBY: Oh, he definitely doesn’t.
GABBY: It shit me that he just lets Jay say whatever he wants to her. Under the pretence that Maria is strong enough to deal with it herself.
GABBY: Like sure she is but doesn’t mean you can’t call out shitty behaviour.
RUDI: YES! And ok he doesn’t want to undermine her but his actual friend thinks he can talk shit to him about his actual sister? I’ve NEVER let anyone talk shit about my brother.
GABBY: It’s the golden rule: only I canst shit talk mine sibling.
RUDI: Ha! And that they’ve been friends for so long but Jay doesn’t know that Gabe likes and respects his sister? Enough not to like people talking shit about her? That doesn’t say anything good about you Gabe.
GABBY: Yes, completely agree. But I got the feeling a lot of this behaviour was dismissed as idiosyncratic-poorly-focused-human-interaction-academia type stuff??? Like I’m so focused on my work, I can’t actually focus on being nice to you.
RUDI: Gabe or Jay?
RUDI: Ah. Coz I just thought Jay was a dickhead.
GABBY: Yes he is.
GABBY: He is all of the poor behaviours.
Clearly Gabby absolutely hated Jay as the hero. And for once I can’t entirely write off her wrong opinion of wrongness. Because Jay’s journey from hate to love was definitely too quick. Even for me.
RUDI: I just wish Jay had’ve liked Maria more as herself BEFORE he realised she was Em.
GABBY: THE SWITCH WAS TOO QUICK AND TOO IMMEDIATE.
GABBY: DISSATISFYINGLY SO.
RUDI: I wanted him to truly try and make things better between him and Maria while still only thinking she’s his friends’ sister. Also I wanted him to be properly torn between Em and Maria without realising they’re the same person.
RUDI: Can you imagine this scene from his PoV where he acknowledges to himself that he’s flirting with her and wants her attention and likes and respects her? Swoon!
RUDI: Coz he so DOES (I refuse to believe otherwise) but I wanted less subtly and more self awareness of his attraction and interest.
RUDI: Also how great would the ANGST of liking two girls be? One irl that you’ve only just met and have wronged and who doesn’t like you, and the other you’ve known for ages and she likes you but you’ve never met and might never meet.
GABBY: *so many 100 emojis*… however that scene when he realised who Maria was, was really powerful. Annoying and frustrating but very powerful.
RUDI: It really was.
RUDI: And then later when she texts him from outside his office? I might’ve reread that scene a couple times.
GABBY: That I didn’t like!!
GABBY: The mechanics of the scene kept tripping me up.
GABBY: Like what is she doing while he’s texting and vice versa?
RUDI: Looking at their phones/playing Angry Birds*
RUDI: Obviously. Please only ask me real questions Gab.
*This is a joke. They do not play Angry Birds even once in this book.
GABBY: THAT WAS A REAL QUESTION RUDI!! DON’T DELEGITIMISE MY CURIOSITY.
RUDI: They’re alternating between watching each other type irl and as little bubbles on their phone
RUDI: So like avoiding real eye contact at all times. But always hyper aware of the conversation they’re having.
RUDI: How does that not slay you? At least a little?
RUDI: Also, they’d be running back over the last couple of seconds of their convo. At least that’s what I thought. Which admittedly is not on the page. But it’s what I do so …?
GABBY: Because I find their in-person interactions more authentic? It was cute but I found their back and forth a bit twee? Twee is my favourite word so it might not be the most accurate but it’s the most fun.
RUDI: It’s so inaccurate but okay fine. You’re right that their in-person stuff was more authentic but I also didn’t think their online interactions were particularly INauthentic.
GABBY: Yeah. Maybe it’s the whole anonymity breeds freedom thing and that’s actually their TRUE selves.
RUDI: But also with the right person you do send messages that cover all that ground between genuine shared interest in stuff and cutesy clever things and really earnest things. Arguably our texts are like theirs. Though with decidedly less flirting.
GABBY: You mean … we’re not flirting…?
RUDI: I fucking knew you’d do that. Here I am trying to have a serious conversation about literature and you just want me to stroke your ego.
I said LESS flirting Gabby. I didn’t say there was none. Happy?
GABBY: Better. I take what I can get.
Although we weren’t able to agree on that scene, Gabby and I did eventually realise that we’re both more comfortable with Milan’s work when she’s writing angst. One reason is that our familiarity with Milan’s novels, tweets, and blog, can sometimes make it too easy to recognise what’s at play in her writing.
This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, and it can sometimes turn tiny moments in her novels into easter eggs. However I do think these easter egg moments are more smoothly integrated in scenes that pack an emotional punch, as opposed to Milan’s light scenes.
Anyway, whether you’re looking for a hate-to-love romance, a semi-epistolary romance, or simply a romance with a seriously amazing heroine and somewhat arseholish hero (who does eventually work out how to behave like a decent human being), Hold Me is well worth a read. I know Gabby won’t necessarily agree with me (purely because of Jay), but for the record, this one is a keeper for me.
Content advisory: You may be hit with an overwhelming urge to Maria-fy your shoes. This is harder to do than you think and should not be undertaken lightly.
You can find an extract of the book here. Self-published.