Published by St. Martin's Griffin on January 5, 2016
I received this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.
Firsts is (aptly) my first book of 2016. I haven’t read a novel in three months, and yet, Firsts spoke to me from the moment I got it in the mail.
Mercedes Ayres is seventeen, is in her last semester of high school, and is bound for MIT. In her chaotic life, she loves the logic and the ease of chemistry. Chemical equations are easy to balance, unlike the other elements in her life (see what I did there? Science puns, FTW). Mercedes also like to help people–but not just any people. Her goal: make virgins better lovers. Mercedes’ first sexual encounter was not good. She was too young. It was coerced. Non-consensual. She sleeps with virgins in a twisted attempt to give girls the kind of magical first sexual encounter that she never had. Pay it forward. But things get complicated, as sexual relationships often do, when her best friend’s boyfriend asks her for this service and her steady, sex-only relationship suddenly wants to be her boyfriend.
Verdict: Firsts isn’t without its problems, but it’s a bold debut novel from Laurie Elizabeth Flynn. It tackles important teen issues in an honest way. Teens are having sex, no matter how much parents/guardians/teachers/society want to think they aren’t, and Firsts addresses it smartly. Mercedes takes control of her own sexual health with a comprehensive knowledge of condoms, never letting sex happen without one.
What does bother me is the problematic insistence that it’s harder to be a boy virgin than a girl virgin.
I really feel for buys. They have the hard part, physically and emotionally. Virginity is supposed to be something a girl gives up only when she is ready and feels comfortable, something a girl discusses at length with her friends and flip-flops over a million times in her mind before actually doing it. A guy is expected to be born ready.
While this partially addresses the double standard (yes, they are expected to be born ready, and that’s a problem), what bothers me is that it doesn’t address the physical and emotional burden that only girls and women shoulder after they lose their virginity (pregnancy, slut shaming, etc.). Girls are simultaneously pressured to have sex and then shamed for doing so.
When Mercedes’ secret is exposed, she is slut shamed at the worst level. Her friend, Faye, points out that it takes two to have sex and that the guys implicated shouldn’t get to walk away unpunished. And while I’m glad that message made it into the book, I wanted Mercedes to stand tall and own her sexuality. Instead, she slinks away in shame. Even though Mercedes uses sex as a way to control her chaotic life–and that she doesn’t want to do that anymore–I would have liked to see her own her sexuality in front of everyone and not just her close friends.
But despite these flaws, Firsts is a compulsive read. I read it all in one sitting. Mercedes’ story is messy, complicated, sad, lonely, and surprising, and that’s just the kind of story that I needed to bring me out of my reading slump. She’s the kind of character that some people hate. I didn’t. Firsts effectively shows us that sex is messy, complicated, sad, lonely, and surprising, just like Mercedes, and just like real people and real relationships.
Side note: I love that Mercedes loves science. I love that she’s accepted to MIT. I love that Flynn isn’t afraid to show us that girls belong in the sciences too.
© 2016, Jessica Workman Holland. All rights reserved.