The trouble with being a Courtney Milan Fan (with a capital F) is that you rate her romances on a scale that exists independently of all other romances. It would be a shifted bell curve, except that you don’t get to actually start her scale at 2 and end it in 6, so you have to pretend that it’s the same 1-5 as everyone else.
What this means is that, when you’re grading on the CMS (Courtney Milan Scale) sometimes you like the book, but not as much as her other books, so it’s only a 4 or a 3. But then, whoa, you go back and it’s still way better than other books that you rated a 4 or 3. Do you bump her back up accordingly? Or do you stay faithful to the CMS, and because you have such high standards for her, it just has to stay put where it is?
The answer to that question, at least for Hold Me, is that I graded this book on the general scale and not the CMS. Because it’s not my favorite Milan, and probably not very high up the list in comparison to her others, but it’s such a well-written, thoughtful, important romance, that it deserves to be read and held in high regard across the genre.
It’s about Maria, who is intelligent, charismatic, guarded, and proud of being a girly girl who flaunts her appearance. She loves upending people’s expectations of what a “hot” girl can be. That’s exactly what happens when she meets Jay, her brother’s former advisor (? I forget their exact relationship tbh) who immediately writes her off based on her looks and assumes, based on her light-hearted conversation with her brother at their dinner, that she has only superficial interests.
Jay’s behavior in the beginning is shocking. It’s not just that he stereotypes her, which a lot of people do IRL, but he is actually verbally nasty to her on multiple occasions, even after he’d been called out, and even after he knew he should stop. Maria eggs him on a bit, but it’s the kind of sarcastic self-deprecation that signals “You’re being an idiot” more than “You’re really funny and should keep going.” Milan is working at a high level of difficulty in general, so she is able to develop an impressive level of self-reflection and growth on Jay’s part and writes him a proper apology demonstrating his evolution. Still, these early scenes were tough, and especially given Maria’s trust issues (more on that in a minute) the condensed timeline took a few shortcuts to get Jay from Part of the Problem to Woke.
Maria has a bit of a history that makes Jay’s initial dismissal of her so triggering: she’s transgender, which naturally leads to not being accepted by everyone, including, painfully, some of the people closest to you. This adds another layer to her pride in her feminine appearance, so while she derives a bit of satisfaction from being read as a hot girl, she doesn’t feel the sting any less when she’s condescended to because of it. As expected from Courtney Milan, there are passages where Maria expresses these frustrations, and they ought to be shouted from the rooftops and quoted in thinkpieces. I won’t do that yet here because those moments are so triumphant when you get to them that I don’t want to lessen the impact.
The social intelligence of this book goes hand-in-hand with straight up academic brain-bait. Milan has done this before, but Jay and Maria (as their online alter-egos, which I didn’t even get into so just let that happen when you read it for yourself) flirt using complex math and physics theory. In addition, with Jay being a professor, Milan digs into academia in a FINALLY recognizable way. For real: for as many books I have read that have had lead characters as academics, none, including non-romance, have so realistically captured the inanity, minutiae, frustrations, and triumphs of modern academic life as well as Hold Me has.
So, it’s a four-star book. Why the reference above, then, to why it’s not one of my favorite Milan romances? It comes down to the condensed timeline, which I mentioned previously. What ends up happening is that Jay goes from hater to hero in a minute, but then Maria — understandably — ends up dragging her feet on letting herself get serious with him for much, much longer. On one hand, Milan is being really respectful to her heroine, by letting her sort through her complicated history, her negative and positive experiences with Jay, her desire to trust him, and her belief of whether or not he’s trustworthy. But on the other hand, cycling through a lot of these thoughts in real-time feels repetitive. It’s authentic to how we actually process these complex decisions, but reading through them on the heels of Jay’s rapid turnaround slows the pace to molasses.
Furthermore, Jay has some of his own family drama, which, honestly, I just was not as invested in. It’s supposed to provide a bit of background for why Jay is prejudiced against pretty girls, but I didn’t actually think it was necessary. Stereotyping of women as either hot or smart and never both at once is fairly commonplace in society, and while his vitriol may have been excessive, he didn’t need an independent explanation for it; we all internalize it.
For fun, because I’m feeling voluble today, I’m ending on my ranked list of Milan romances. Again, even the ones at the bottom of the list are 3+ star books in general romance.
The Countess Conspiracy
The Suffragette Scandal
A Kiss for Midwinter
Her Every Wish
The Duchess War
The Heiress Effect
Once Upon a Marquess
This Wicked Gift
Trial by Desire
The Governess Affair
Talk Sweetly to Me
Proof by Seduction