Book Review: Firsts by Laurie Elizabeth Flynn
Seventeen-year-old Mercedes Ayres has an open-door policy when it comes to her bedroom, but only if the guy fulfills a specific criteria: he has to be a virgin. Mercedes lets the boys get their awkward, fumbling first times over with, and all she asks in return is that they give their girlfriends the perfect first time- the kind Mercedes never had herself.
Keeping what goes on in her bedroom a secret has been easy- so far. Her absentee mother isn’t home nearly enough to know about Mercedes’ extracurricular activities, and her uber-religious best friend, Angela, won’t even say the word “sex” until she gets married. But Mercedes doesn’t bank on Angela’s boyfriend finding out about her services and wanting a turn- or on Zach, who likes her for who she is instead of what she can do in bed.
When Mercedes’ perfect system falls apart, she has to find a way to salvage her reputation and figure out where her heart really belongs in the process. Funny, smart, and true-to-life, FIRSTS is a one-of-a-kind young adult novel about growing up.
*THERE WILL BE SPOILERS*
FIRSTS begins as a story about an empowered and sexually confident teenage girl – 17 and in the final part of her senior year of high school – who has decided that she is going to use her sexual knowledge and experience to help virgin boys get over their nerves so that they can give their girlfriends a good first experience. It then performs the most dramatic bait and switch as it becomes clear that our main character is not the sexually assured individual that she has introduced herself as. So what you think is going to be an empowering sex positive story of female sexuality becomes another story about a girl who has been victimized and is very much broken. It’s an unfortunate turn because there are no shortage of those stories out there and many of them are more consistently written.
Mercy – Mercedes – is a complicated and flawed character, which would be good if she weren’t written in such a dramatically inconsistent way. She is at times able to read the boys that step into her bedroom which such precision that she knows exactly what role to take on for them – complete with a drawer full of negligees to help her fulfill their fantasies. And yet she doesn’t see the various warning signs about a character that becomes the impetus for her downfall, even after several other characters point those very warning signs out to her. It’s a characterization that doesn’t make sense but is necessary in order for the plot as written here to work.
Speaking of those other characters, they also were weirdly written and hard to buy into. Faye is the new girl in town who 1) feels almost supernaturally drawn to Mercy from day 1 and 2) conveniently has an eerily similar story that makes her completely empathetic to what happens to Mercy when the school finds out that she has slept with a wide variety of the boys – and the boyfriends – of her fellow classmates. None of it rang true because it once again put plot convenience before character development.
And then there is Zach, who may be the male version of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl. He is too perfect, standing by Mercy’s side after being publicly humiliated and deeply hurt. To up the absurdity of Zach even more, Mercy realizes how much he loves her after her friend Angela quotes a bible verse to her about how there is no fear in love and how perfect love casts out fear (John 4:18). I liked Zach, but I didn’t think he had much depth to him, nor did he seem like a realistic teenage boy.
The religious elements presented in Firsts are perhaps the most interesting part of this story. Mercy goes to an early morning Bible study because her best friend Angela believes. They are joined by Charlie, until Charlie makes it clear that he believes very little of what he claims to believe. Angela is a caricature of a deeply religious teen, and yet her character seemed the most authentic in the way that she struggled with purity culture and the idea of saving yourself until marriage. She at least seems to genuinely believe what she says she believes even as she wrestles with the practical aspects of living it daily.
To be honest, I was turned off of this book in the first few pages. We meet Mercy as she is engaged in her first of several “sex counseling” like sessions that she engages in throughout the book. Mercy asks Evan what he would do and he says he would “ask if I could touch them.”, them being her breasts. To which Mercy replies, ” . . . never ask if you can do something. Be bold, because confidence is one thing you can absolutely fake until you actually feel it.” The sexual politics of the story just get muddier and muddier from this moment out. In fact – and this is a MAJOR SPOILER – it becomes clear that part of the reason Mercy is so messed up is because she herself was groomed and then raped by an older boy at the age of 13, although no one ever calls it rape, which is another unfortunate misstep in this book. And when the school finds out that Mercy has slept with over 13 boys and the insults of slut and whore follow, only one person points out to Mercy, who blames herself for ruining these guys lives, that they were willing participants who sought her out for her “services”. So, there are some messy and not well addressed sexual politics that happen in this story. And that, to me, is one of my biggest concerns and one of the biggest flaws of this book.
Combine that with weak, inconsistent and unbelievable characterization and a lot of very unrealistic plot points – no adult ever really finds out about what is happening? no one in the school finds out about Mercy and her “services” until somewhere around boy 10? And a teenage girl even offers these kinds of “services”? – and I obviously have trouble recommending this book.
I will say, after all hell breaks loose because of the vindictive manipulations of one teenage boy, the story does kind of put the pieces back together in a feel good kind of way. Sure, you have to buy into the fact that Faye knows exactly what is happening to Mercy and Zach will unflinchingly stand by her side and Angela will believe her story and forgive her, but if you can do all of that then you get your feel good narrative.
On the flip side, I know people who have read this book and are singing its praises. I am not that person, but they are out there. In fact, it has an average rating of 3.80 on Goodreads with over 261 reviews. So make of that what you will.
FIRSTS will be released by St. Martin’s Griffin on January 5, 2016. I received an ARC of this title in exchange for an honest review. ISBN: 9781250075963.
About Karen Jensen, MLS
Karen Jensen has been a Teen Services Librarian for almost 30 years. She created TLT in 2011 and is the co-editor of The Whole Library Handbook: Teen Services with Heather Booth (ALA Editions, 2014).
SLJ Blog Network