First & Then by Emma Mills

A pattern of rainbow coloured raindrops around a white shape of a heartWhy I read it:  I borrowed this one from my local library.

What it’s about: (from Goodreads)  Devon Tennyson wouldn’t change a thing. She’s happy watching Friday night games from the bleachers, silently crushing on best friend Cas, and blissfully ignoring the future after high school. But the universe has other plans. It delivers Devon’s cousin Foster, an unrepentant social outlier with a surprising talent for football, and the obnoxiously superior and maddeningly attractive star running back, Ezra, right where she doesn’t want them: first into her P.E. class and then into every other aspect of her life.

What worked for me (and what didn’t):  Most of the book was sweet, charming and very engaging. But there was one thing which really bothered me. More on that later.

Devon Tennyson is a high school senior. She considers herself average, ordinary and uninspiring. Her parents are still together, they all get along well; no major traumas have really touched her life. She has no particular passion; there’s no career or sport or hobby she’s all that attached to. She has a huge unrequited crush on her best friend, Cassidy (Cas) but otherwise, she thinks there’s not much all that interesting about her. She’s wrong of course because everyone is interesting in one way or another but I get where she’s coming from. And, in the end, she celebrates about herself some of those things she bemoans when the book begins.

Devon’s father’s brother died some years before, leaving a widow and a son, Foster. Over the summer, Devon and her family had traveled to California from their home in Florida to get Foster and bring him back to stay “for a while”. Foster’s mother isn’t coping and can’t look after him. Foster is, of course, distraught and Devon’s mother takes him to therapy every week. Foster is 14 to Devon’s 17. He hangs around her all the time and, to say he has “quirks” would be an understatement. At the beginning of the book she regards Foster as bothersome and annoying. But by the end he is, in all ways that count, her brother. The way this came about was delightful. The writing is spare and invites the reader to look into the spaces in between the words. It manages to convey a rich subtext without being too subtle.

Devon mostly realises that Cas isn’t into her and never will be but she still does hold out some hope. However, when Cas shows interest in another girl, Lindsay, Devon is nevertheless a little crushed.

Foster reveals a previously unknown talent for kicking a football and this leads Devon into the orbit of Ezra Lynley, the star running back of the high school football team. He doesn’t say much and is quite reticent in almost everything. Of course, he has a story of his own.

“Close your eyes, real tight, and then count to three hundred. That’s all you have to do. You just count to three hundred, and when you open your eyes, five minutes will have passed. And even if it hurts or things are shitty or you don’t know what to do, you just made it through five whole minutes. And when it feels like you can’t go on, you just close your eyes and do it again. That’s all you need. Just five minutes at a time.”

Devon is a devoted fan of Jane Austen and there is more than one nod to Ms. Austen’s works in First & Then – including a letter a la Persuasion – albeit with a modern twist. Ezra is a youthful cross between Captain Wentworth and Mr. Darcy – perhaps there are others too – I’m not an Austen aficionado. Devon isn’t quite Elizabeth Bennett. In some ways, she bears a resemblance to Emma but not because she’s a matchmaker – more because she’s a bit clueless (pardon the pun) about the people around her. Although she is 17 and that is not uncommon (even in adults in fact).

There are some wonderful secondary characters – Marabelle; the 15 year old fellow student who is friendly with Devon and who is pregnant, (Marabelle also happens to be Ezra’s stepsister), Foster and Jordan (another football player and a really nice guy) in particular.

Devon does wake up a bit over the course of the story and begins to move outside of her own “bubble” – I appreciated her growth there. It’s not strictly a romance. It’s a YA common-of-age novel but there is a romantic thread and a HFN ending suitable for the story and the ages of the characters. There is no love triangle thankfully. I was struck a number of times by particularly witty or insightful lines and the way the author was able to capture the casual cruelty of youth and young love.

It’s not an explicit book – Devon has her first kiss in the story but things do not progress further than that. And, one has to wait until nearly the end to get even that. I’m not complaining. The book flowed well and it felt right for the story. The kissing, when it came, was terribly romantic.

What else? At the beginning of the novel, Devon and Ezra join a freshman PE class because, in her case, it is now mandatory and she’d managed to skip PE until her senior year and in Ezra’s case, apparently, he needed an elective. Devon is extremely judgemental of the freshmen. She is quite a bit older than they and feels uncomfortable in their class; that it is a PE class only makes it worse. She notes that the girls wear a lot of makeup and are far more fashion-conscious than she was at that age. This is the bit where she later has some growth, so this part didn’t bother me. What did bother me was her name for the freshmen girls in the PE class. She called them “Prostitots” or “PTs” for short. There is implicit acknowledgement in the text that this is not okay; for instance, when she refers to one girls as a “PT” one time and is queried on her use of the term, she declines to explain and apart from that single occasion, she never uses either term aloud. It’s bad enough that Devon was judging the other girls for their hair and makeup (as I said I could give that a pass because she did get pulled up on it (although it was late in the story) and honestly acknowledged she had been wrong) but to consider them child-whores? No. No. No. No. The insult is particularly gendered because her name for the males in the class is the fairly benign “freshboys“. There was no pushback on the term “prostitots” in the story at all. I think it was supposed to be funny. It wasn’t. It was slut-shamey and not cool.

I kept hoping she would have a realisation about how slut-shaming she was being but I was destined for disappointment there – she never did.

The book was specifically not slut-shaming to Marabelle. But I think this was more around that Devon knew and liked Marabelle and she did not know and, for most of the book, did not care to know the freshmen girls in PE class. I was disappointed the slut-shaming got past the editors and I downgraded the book as a result. We tell boys to have more respect for women and not to value women based on what they wear or how they look – but women need to have more respect for women too.

What the book also did however is show some of the freshmen girls PE class as individuals and not stereotypes.

“Are you okay? Does it hurt? Madeline, go punch James.”

I watched as a tall, lanky PT went over to the stocky defensive end I knew only as Kenyon and punched him in the arm.

“That’s for hitting Devon,” Gracie called.

“Geez,” Kenyon said. “It was an accident.”

“I’m sorry, what now?” Gracie said, and her expression was deadly.

“Sorry,” Kenyon mumbled.

Perhaps that was supposed to be the narrative pushing back on the idea of “prostitots”? I’m not great at subtle so I’d be interested for others who have read the book to chime in here. But I’m thinking not because even in this passage (which occurs late in the story), Devon is still calling them “PT[s]”. It is not a term of affection.

I’d have given First & Then a B+ but because of the slut-shaming it gets a B. Apart from that, the book is fabulous. But is this a case of “apart from that Mrs. Lincoln, how did you enjoy the play?” I’m not sure.

Grade: B

 

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2 comments on “First & Then by Emma Mills

  1. Chris

    I LOVE the cover. 🙂

    Reply

  2. Kaetrin

    🙂

    Reply

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