Wednesday, February 24, 2016

First & Then

This is not a novel I would have ever picked out for myself.  But one of the great things about working with other librarians on a blog is that they push you.  In this case, doing the Reader vs. Reader feature on Teen Services Underground has had me read three books that I would never have picked out for myself.

Okay, granted, I didn't like any of the three books, but I'm glad I read them.  Kind of.  No, I am.  They made for fun conversations with my fellow TSU Agents.

So for February, we read First & Then by Emma Mills.  All of the press that I've seen for this pitches it as a retelling of Pride and Prejudice (the Goodreads summary is "Pride and Prejudice meets Friday Night Lights"), so I'm going to go in with a relatively high set of expectations, if only because Pride and Prejudice is my favorite book in the history of ever.  

It would have been a much better idea to say "inspired by Austen," because I expect a retelling to have parallels to the original work, and to play with it in an unexpected way.  

Devon, the main character and narrator, is presumably our Elizabeth.  But I don't remember Elizabeth cutting down other girls and calling them "loose women" in the insouciant way that Devon labels the girls who wear eyeshadow and lip gloss "prostitots."  Or "PTs" for short.  Actually, Devon  judges everybody.  That's probably why she has no friends other than her best friend, Cas, with whom she is totally in love.  More on him later.

There are two big problems with this book (without counting the incessant use of PT to describe every female at school):

  1. If this book is supposed to be inspired by Pride and Prejudice, or at least Austen's oeuvre, it does so in a distracting and excessively uneven way.
  2. The supporting characters were a million times more interesting than the main characters.  Emma Mills can write compelling characters, but I think that this book had the wrong focus.  

In the first instance, the characters in First & Then don't match up well to their Austenian counterparts, so this is really more of a vague nod to Austen than inspired by her books.  I was so distracted trying to figure out who was who and which situations were parallels that it kept dragging me out of the narrative.  If--IF--Devon is supposed to be Elizabeth, then I believe that the author and I read two completely different versions of Pride and Prejudice.  Devon may be the embodiment of prejudice, as she is constantly cutting other people down and deeming them unworthy of her friendship, but she is excessively nasty at times.  To be honest, she was much more of an Emma--silly and thinking herself cleverer than everyone else.  The mysterious yet talented football player Ezra is supposed to be the Darcy type, but instead of everyone at the school hating him because he is an all-out jerk, they hate him because he is a good football player (?) and he is quiet.


Darcy was taciturn by choice--he deemed those around him unworthy of his attention--but Ezra is quiet because he is shy.  He doesn't seem nasty in any way, just extremely introverted.  He's super-nice to Devon's cousin, Foster, who is living with them as his mom is in rehab and doesn't really want to care for him anymore.

Turns out that Foster is the best part of this book.  He's such an intriguing character: pained, but not dramatic.  He has a gift for football but doesn't act all high and mighty about it.  He's quirky and lovable and I would read a book just all about him.  His relationship with Devon was also very believable and made me wish that she deserved his love.

Marabelle, a younger girl in school who's pregnant, also deserved far more attention.  It seemed like she was there to be "the pregnant teen" and *spoiler* the sister of whom Ezra is very protective (Darcy and Georgiana).  But she deserved more time, and the resolution of her relationship with Foster was ... odd, to say the least.  It was a bit as if the author forgot about it, and quickly fixed things with a sentence.

On the other hand, many characters seem to rove about pointlessly in the narrative, or their ultimate motivations, as revealed, make little sense, even in a fictional universe.  Take Cas, Devon's best friend.  Devon is soooooo in looooove with him, and has been forever, but he doesn't love her back.  She says that she loves Austen because even though there is unrequited love in the books, often, it is requited in the end.  I could list a bunch of characters that this is not true for, but that's beside the point.  Devon says she doesn't want to change for Cas, but she wants him to change for her.  At the end, Cas tells her that everyone knows she's in love with him because she's so obvious, and he just tolerates it.  What a complete turd!  Instead of ignoring the fact that your BFF is in love with you, if you were a decent human being, wouldn't you address the issue?  Ignoring it is only going to make things worse.  Cas; colossal turd and waste of oxygen.  I *think* he's supposed to be Wickham's analogue, but he has a lot more seducing to do to get there.  More depravity, please.

HELLOOOOOO LAYDEEEZ!  G. DUBS IN DA HOUSE!

And then there's the non-resolution resolution of all of Devon's problems.  As we follow her throughout the book, the main theme is that she is so average that she won't be able to get into her college of choice.  She is convinced she can't do any extracurriculars because she is so depressingly average.  Plus, what does she have to write about for her college admissions essay?  Nothing.  SO AVERAGE.  Look, I get it.  Then, she and her counselor (who disappears after the first half of the book--poof!) and some other kids go on a visit to the college she wants to attend, and then Devon is more positive.  I was hoping she'd talk more about being motivated to get in, and doing more things with clubs and such, but nope.  From there on out it is Relationship Drama, and the only resolution Devon gets in the end is a romantic one.  And that's not what I want girls to take away from this.  If you start out telling a story about getting into college, follow through.  It's really about Devon's self-perception and self-worth, and dating a guy is not going to fix any of that.


I don't often say this, but I think First & Then would have benefitted from an extra 100 pages to flesh out the characters more and give them the needed time to grow.  The 6-8 weeks between the beginning of school and homecoming is a really short time frame.  Alternatively, we could cut out the current main characters and refocus on the ones that are compelling and well-written: Foster and Marabelle.  Mills demonstrates that she can write about Foster's family issues with sensitivity and grace--why can't we get more of that?

The final thing I don't quite understand is the title: First & Then.  It doesn't have any particular reference point within the story, other than the very broad plot of "first she hated him, then she loved him."  Any thoughts on that?

Had the author not waded into Pride and Prejudice homage territory, this could have been an interesting story about two teens and their fascinating siblings.  As it stands, though, it is as wearying as marrying Mr. Collins.

In order to make you (and me) feel better, here's a wet shirt Darcy to close things out:




4 comments:

  1. Ooh, wet shirt Darcy! YES! Just one question from a non American: what on earth is homecoming? (And why does it require a queen?)

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  2. *deep breath*
    Homecoming is a dance AND a (American) football game. Generally the football game is held on a Friday night (hence the TV show Friday Night Lights), and the dance on a Saturday night. The preceding week is usually called Spirit Week and you are supposed to be like in the team spirit ... I guess.

    It's a bit like prom where you have a king and a queen crowned with a court, but Homecoming is a semi-formal and not a formal, so it's like a casual formal dance? Where I am, Homecoming court was always seniors (outgoing) since they'd have the year to say they were Homecoming King/Queen.

    Traditionally, homecoming is when the alumni come back to the school for the game, but since this is not The South where High School Football is the King of All Sports (or runner-up to college ball), we basically saw homecoming as a more relaxed time to goof off.

    N.b. I never actually attended any of my high school dances because I didn't want to. it was never a huge deal with my friends either, kind of a take-it-or-leave-it thing, and dates weren't as end-all-be-all as they are in pop culture. Although two of my good friends in h.s. got up the gumption to go to prom together and ended up getting married and having (for now) three adorable kiddos.

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  3. Thanks for the explanation! I guess football must be very important over there to have alumni return to attend it. We have a Year 12 formal at my school. Oh, and one in Year 10 because we've got three junior campuses and a senior one. If we were a Year seven to twelve school, there would be only one official dance. We do have sports teams, but it's a lot more laid back, unless the school is a sports school which kids attend because of the sports program.

    That's sweet about your friends. I remember two of our students who were engaged almost immediately after school - I met the young lady in the street the following year and she showed me her engagement ring. He asked me, "Miss, doesn't she look like Kate Winslet?" A lovely couple. He chose her dress for the Formal and she looked stunning in it.

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  4. Are sports schools just generally known to be good at sports, or is their focus more ... sporty? What are your big sports? Football, rugby, cricket?

    Wow, anyone who says his girl looks like Kate Winslet is a keeper :D

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