Controversial YA in FIRSTS–A Review

Hi there! It’s 2016 and as a resolution, I’m on a quest to read books that have been challenged or banned. Despite all the reading I do, it’s not the easiest for me, as I generally read books that are newly published, or soon to be published. Books that make the Banned or Challenged list with the American Librarian’s Association are generally books that have been out in circulation for a while. So there will be some throw-back books, for sure, but I’m also going to highlight books that are controversial enough that I think they might one day make the list.

Today, I’m sharing a review for FIRSTS by Laurie Elizabeth Flynn is a contemporary YA novel with romantic elements. I think you’ll understand why the book has what I call a ‘trainwreck’ plot–in that we can all see the horrific turns and expect a figurative blood bath for the protagonist. The story/content are explicit enough that I would be shocked if there are no objections to this book in the offing. (Not that I condone censorship!!! Just sayin’!)

FirstsAbout the book:
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.

My Review:
FIRSTS features a supremely unlikeable MC, Mercedes, a high school senior who is spending her un-chaperoned nights sexually-educating the clueless virgins of her high school.

Yep. Guys nervous about your first time with your girlfriend? Call Mercedes. On the super-down-low, though, as you wouldn’t want your actual girlfriend to find out you had a one-nighter with another girl.

Okay–so THIS BOOK has a trainwreck plot. Mercedes is a smart girl, awaiting her MIT acceptance, with a wealthy father she hasn’t seen in three years and a Cali socialite mother whose longest relationship has been with her plastic surgeon. Kim, as Mercedes calls her mom, is despicably clueless and emotionally abusive. Mercedes has been wholly shamed into strict diets and couture life, with little to no parental affection. I know, I know…poor little rich girl. Still, the absence of parenting leaves Mercedes vulnerable to predation when she’s young–and her own first time was little more than acquaintance rape by a manipulative older boy when she was thirteen.

And, Mercedes doesn’t want the fumbling firsts for other girls. She’s sure her “good deeds” will be of benefit, but she’s rapidly sucked into some rotten scenarios under the misapprehension of control. Mercedes thinks basically anonymous sex will protect her from the hurt/pain of connection with another human. Also, she thinks setting the mood and being in her own sanctuary–her boudoir–will provide control to a situation that is fraught with intimate danger. All of these fallacies become plain to Mercedes as the story goes on. (As the train builds steam going around that blind curve…)

Boys talk. They do. They find a way to use her “service” to their own end, and Mercedes falls into a shame spiral. That’s nothing compared to the shock and EEW of finding herself on the bad end of a one-sided fascination from her best-friend Angela’s virgin boyfriend, Charlie.

Mercedes has few friends. She admits to being bad with people. Really bad. She has excluded herself from the regular company of god-bothering Angela, because Angela’s all about “saving herself” and Mercedes has (essentially) been “ruined” since 8th grade. And, the virgin thing started at the beginning of senior year–so their friendship has become more strained. As more and more boys fill up Mercedes’ log book, Mercedes finds herself more estranged, and seeking further validation. She sets up a regular sex date with her lab partner, Zach, who is a remarkably open-minded guy.

Zach is a great guy, really, and only wants to date Mercedes. He loves her, and is thwarted from telling her, well, by Mercedes who doesn’t want that closeness. New girl Faye also turns Mercedes’ head. There’s an open flirtation there, and it looks like Faye and Mercedes might hit it off, but Charlie’s lurking in the background and doing really REALLY nasty (and illegal) things to ensure his place in Mercedes’ bed–all without Angela finding out.

Expect there to be video fall out. Expect there to be slut-shaming and fighting and angry girlfriends and electronic humiliation and public airing of a pseudo-sex tape. All while NOT ONE ADULT is the wiser. (That sound you heard? That was a a big huh? from me.)

What I liked about this book:
1. The “Life Goes On” message. Mercedes is called to account and harassed, assaulted and nearly raped a second time. Her closest friends stick by her side. They go above and beyond the pale to help cast Mercedes’ deeds into Yesterday’s News.
2. Mercedes learns that her value exists in herself, and that friendship is a valuable endeavor. Mercedes doesn’t believe herself worthy of love or affection–and finds it hard to accept those overtures, from anyone. At first.
3. There are no easy resolutions in life. When you upset people, you have to bear the results of that–not regarding the episodes of assault on school property, however. That shoulda been nipped in the bud by administration. And the Sharpie attacks on her locker would have been painted over by my kids’ schools toot-sweet–not left to languish in all their slur-ry glory…
4. Realistic, if crappy, response to Mercedes’ shenanigans. I’m not a fan of slut-shaming, but this book is actually designed to take on slut-shaming, by being sorta sex positive. So one must endure the firestorm of hate to “endure” it, in Mercedes’ life.

Stuff that made me set the book down for a bit:
1. Trainwreck plot. As a mature woman, I have perspective that Mercedes lacks. I knew her little enterprise would become public knowledge from the outset. When it all got to be TOO much–especially Charlie’s overtures–I needed to take a break. It’s no fun turning every page and wanting to smack the narrator twice.
2. Lack of punishment for Mercedes’ attackers, be they physical or sexual. I had a hard time believing that Charlie’s “punishment” was being outed as a jackass who spilled the beans. What he actually did was criminal, and should have resulted in some legal repercussions. The hallway tormentors also got off with no notice. In what world, I wondered.
3. The double-standard of girl versus boy “promiscuity” was only barely scratched at.

No one is going to find Mercedes or her actions likable. She doesn’t particularly like herself very much, for reasons other than her sexual activity. I believe, however, that some readers will find her sympathetic. Back in my younger days, we had the “Jerry Springer” standard for decency. If your actions didn’t get you called in as a “guest star” on the seedy Jerry Springer Show, then you were still “decent.” Mercedes has a distinct “Jerry Springer” vibe, which makes sense.

All the best trainwrecks appeared on that show.

That said, the book is interesting as a study in moral contrasts and contemporary puritinism. FIRSTS is clearly going to a challenged book for the very fact that kids haz sex, and not just a little bit, in this book. Don’t hope for fade-to-black, everything plays out in cringe-worthy living color.

Interested? You can find FIRSTS on Goodreads, Amazon, and Barnes & Noble.  I received a review copy of this book via NetGalley.

About the Author:
Laurie Elizabeth Flynn writes contemporary fiction for young adults. Her debut, FIRSTS, will be published by Thomas Dunne Books/St Martin’s Press in 2016.

Laurie went to school for Journalism, where the most important thing she learned was that she would rather write made-up stories than report the news. She also worked as a model, a job that took her overseas to Tokyo, Athens, and Paris.

Laurie now lives in London, Ontario with her husband Steve, who is very understanding when she would rather spend time with the people in her head. Laurie can mostly be found writing happily at her desk, with the world’s most spoiled Chihuahua on her lap. Laurie drinks way too much coffee, snorts when she laughs, and times herself when she does crossword puzzles. Laurie is represented by the amazing Kathleen Rushall of the Marsal Lyon Literary Agency.

You can find Laurie on her website, Goodreads, Facebook and twitter.

Thanks for popping in and keep reading my friends!

2 thoughts on “Controversial YA in FIRSTS–A Review

  1. This book sounds a bit sad, and makes me glad I was a very-present mom. My son has told me some things he did in high school that I didn’t know about, and I’ve said, Oh, well. He didn’t do anything horrible or weird.He’s 35 now. In spite of the book not sounding all that great to me, I like the concept of Mercedes’ “service,” but any thinking adult knows that it would end badly. I liked your review.

    Love,
    Janie

    • Thanks for your comments, Janie, and yes, the book is rather sad. I, too, strive to be an involved parent, and it’s impossible to catch everything, but the mom here neither caught anything or practically applauded her daughter’s actions–caught up in her own selfishness.

      As adults we can see the pitfalls, so I think this book–in the hands of teens–will highlight a problematic path.
      Best to you, Janie!
      ❤ V 🙂

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