I was on the fence about trying the Read Harder challenge until I got to #20 on the list: “Read an LGBTQ+ romance novel.” That tipped me firmly into the “yes” column because I had the perfect book on my wish list: Hold Me by Courtney Milan, one of the smartest and funniest writers I’ve encountered during my long blog hiatus. Hold Me is set in the same world as my favorite Milan book, Trade Me, and I couldn’t wait to pick it up.
I liked Hold Me and recommend it, but with a caveat: you kind of have to ignore some early missteps if you want to root for this romance.
We first meet heroine Maria Lopez as she rushes to pick up her brother Gabe’s friend for a welcome-to-town dinner. The friend, Jay na Thalang, is an assistant professor at Berkeley who more or less lives at work and has both eyes firmly on his tenure clock.*
When Maria knocks on the door to Jay’s laboratory, Jay thinks she’s a would-be graduate student who missed the first group meeting. He takes in her chic outfit and flashy accessories, plus the fact that he thinks she’s two hours late, and tells her she obviously doesn’t have what it takes to succeed in his lab. “I’m looking for three-sigma students,” he informs her before shutting the door in her face.** Over dinner, he doubles down and tells Maria that her shallow influence could ruin Gabe’s academic career. Maria, understandably, concludes that Jay is a jerk who assumes she’s stupid just because she’s rocking a pair of heels.
It seems like a classic case of hate at first sight. But what Jay and Maria don’t know is that they are already friends online. They don’t know names or personal details, but they have come to rely more and more on each other for friendship and emotional support. As their in-person relationship goes from bad to worse, their conversations online become increasingly flirty and intimate. Maria knows she’s falling for him–but Jay, burdened by both his job and past failure, worries that if he moves things to the real world he will inevitably let her down.
There’s a lot to love about Hold Me. The online component of Jay and Maria’s relationship crackles with chemistry. There are science and math jokes galore. In one fabulous scene, Jay and Maria flirt-slash-insult each other by sending each other cocktails at a bar. Maria is a trans woman, and this is treated as a major factor in her life–she’s estranged from her parents because of it–but not as her sole defining characteristic. She’s caring and tough and not ashamed of her skill with a contour brush. Jay’s loneliness and vulnerability make him someone you want to root for–that is, if you ignore his behavior in the first chapters.
I was never quite able to get past Jay’s introduction. We learn that Maria reminds him of someone from his past, someone he has a really good reason to hate, but even so their early in-person relationship doesn’t work for me. To be fair, Hold Me doesn’t try to pretend that this is a case of mutual misunderstanding. Jay was a jerk and he has to admit it before he gets his happy ending. But I had a hard time sympathizing with a hero who has that kind of mean elitism in him, even if he apologizes for it later. Furthermore, the Jay we meet in that first scene seems at odds with the Jay in the rest of the novel, who doesn’t seem to be a snob about his intellectual abilities, even if he does make dumb assumptions about fashionable women.
I find myself thinking about Pride and Prejudice, which also has a hero who has to earn forgiveness after behaving rudely at the beginning of the novel. So why does Darcy’s early behavior work for me, but not Jay’s? I think it’s because Darcy is never intentionally cruel to Elizabeth, while Jay is actively mean to Maria during most of their early in-person conversations. Maria doesn’t take that quietly, but it feels more like she’s calling him on his bullshit than being equally rude back.
I feel odd for being so negative about a book that I really did enjoy. Milan is a smart writer who creates great leads and fantastic supporting characters, and doesn’t let her characters off the hook too easily when they make mistakes. I absolutely recommend Hold Me to romance fans–but maybe skim the first couple of chapters. (And also, read Trade Me. You’re welcome.)
Rating: Library Loan
* This book really, really understands academia–unsurprising given Milan’s background (she has a graduate degree in chemistry from Berkeley and a law degree from Michigan), but it’s still nice to read a novel that realizes an assistant professor at a top research university would be buried in grant applications, extremely stressed out, and have basically no social life.
** A “three-sigma” in statistics is something three standard deviations above the mean–in the top 0.3%.