Hi guys, I’m excited to be part of the Canadian Blog Tour today for Firsts by Laurie Elizabeth Flynn! If you know my blog at all, you know that I have very strong thoughts about consent, feminism and sex positivity – and Firsts addresses all of that. It’s a read that I’m very glad exists. Read on for my thoughts, and then a Q&A with Laurie!
Author: Laurie Elizabeth Flynn
Find the author: Website, Blog, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Tumblr
Publisher: St. Martin's Griffin
Publication date: January 5th 2016
Source: ARC from publisher (thank you!)
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 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 own reputation -and figure out where her heart really belongs in the process. Funny, smart, and true-to-life, Laurie Elizabeth Flynn's Firsts is a one-of-a-kind young adult novel about growing up.
*Very light spoilers here and there – if you haven’t read and like to know absolutely nothing, please don’t read!*
*Also, I would probably say that this book is for age 14 & up – definite sexual content, and I talk about some of it in here.*
Review: Firsts by Laurie Elizabeth Flynn
Firsts by Laurie Elizabeth Flynn opens with a bang – and yes, I’m speaking metaphorically. The main character, Mercedes, immediately narrates that she’s “doing Evan Brown’s girlfriend a favor. An awkward, sweaty, fumbling favor.”
Yup, Mercedes is about to have sex with Evan. In fact, she’s about to de-virginize him in order to make sure that his girlfriend has a great first time in bed. This is all part of Mercedes’ system of “paying-it-forward” because she had a terrible first experience.
Flynn explores the concept of “good” and “bad” girls so thoroughly and completely that your concept of ethical and emotional right is turned on its head. She gets way WAY into the head of Mercedes, her protagonist, who definitely considers herself a “bad girl”, but here’s the thing: in her own messed up way…Mercedes is pretty nice. Her idea of paying it forward is extreme, but as you go deeper and deeper into Mercedes’ life and headspace, you realize just how turned around her ideas and priorities are.
A lot of those ideas come from her mother, Kim, who essentially spends most of her time gossiping in salons and country clubs with other wealthy housewives with too much time on their hands. Kim’s mantra is always to stay as thin as possible to be able to attract guys – and she’s not afraid to insist that Mercedes do the same. She seems to have no real interest in Mercedes’ goal of going to MIT to study math, and she consents and approves of the string of guys coming over to see Mercedes (but never sleeping over) – no wonder, given that Kim often brings guys home for her own one night stands. In fact, it’s very, very evident throughout the novel that part of the reason for Mercedes’ system is a cry for attention from her mom.
And that’s where this book is fascinating: because it explores the ideas of right and wrong, control, empowerment and consent in a girl who has no real compass for any of these things. At the beginning of the novel, Mercedes is seemingly very much in control of the situation with the guys she’s de-virginizing. She’s a girl who likes sex, and she’s not afraid to ask for it without strings, especially when it comes to Zach, her lab partner who is definitely interested in her. When he inevitably asks for a real date, though, she rejects him boldly.
“But I’m not a regular girl. I don’t want to hold hands in the hall at school and slow dance at prom and see a movie with Zach. I don’t want to be the girl he dates senior year and loses interest in when he goes off to college. I want to be just fast enough for Zach to have to run to catch up, because if I stay ahead, I won’t ever have to see his retreating back.”
This is a girl who deeply, deeply mistrusts others, who is scared of being left behind, and does what she can to keep control. She won’t let anyone close because she’s afraid that they’ll leave her. And a lot of that stems from parental neglect and a complete lack of self-esteem.
On one hand, what Mercedes is saying here is somewhat empowering. She should be able to have a casual relationship. But what’s troubling about this is that she’s not doing it because she respects herself and she wants to have fun. She’s doing it because she feels it’s inevitable that Zach will leave her eventually. She has never had an example or feeling of being loved for just being her. In most cases, Mercedes has to act out in order to just get people to pay attention to her.
The lucky exceptions to this are Mercedes’ two friends, Angela and Faye. In these characters, you get the full spectrum of sexual experience and female friendship. Angela is Mercedes’ long-time best friend, and she’s as far from Mercedes as she can be: a conservative, Bible-study-group leading virgin who has a long-term boyfriend. Meanwhile, Faye is a new, bold girl at school who at first seems interested in Zach, Mercedes’ sex buddy, but also seems interested in Mercedes in a way that is both shameless and somewhat sexual.
The juxtaposition of these characters plays out as the plot moves forward, when, inevitably, people start finding out about Mercedes’ system and questioning her anonymity, choices, and safety. It’s both infuriating and upsetting…and to be honest, that’s where the book lost me a little. Even though I felt that most of the book was very realistic, there were moments in the resolution that didn’t seem to jive with the rest of the themes of the book. I also felt like the pacing slowed down a bit as the resolution progressed.
Despite that, I liked Firsts a lot. This is a book that never shies away from sexual matter, from emotional abuse, and from the nuances of consent, power, and feminism. It’s interesting and unique in the world of YA. In those ways alone, this book is (and I hate using this word, but) important.
Book Boyfriend Alert: Zach. ZACH. I can’t give spoilers on this, but dude is TOTALLY crushworthy – and not just because he’s the only guy who can bring Mercedes to orgasm.
Sex Positivity and Sexual Confusion: I mean, obviously, sex positivity. But I thought it was fascinating that Flynn also added in an element of Mercedes questioning her own sexual orientation because she had never really met a girl she admired.
The Final Word:
When I first heard the premise of Firsts, I was absolutely fascinated – because how do you get to the point where you feel like you even need to pay it forward with sex? And how do you justify taking a boy’s virginity so that another girl can have a better experience? How do you make cheating okay?
What you do, if you’re Laurie Elizabeth Flynn, is create a fascinating character – a girl who has been so emotionally abused and hurt that she literally cannot tell the difference between right and wrong, between safety and empowerment. And then you muddle things up a little more by adding in incredible secondary characters as foils for her, and muddle things up even more by having people find out about her system.
Even though this isn’t going to be a favorite for me, I’m deeply grateful that Firsts exists. It realistically presents the good and bad of having multiple sexual partners and consent. However, there were moments nearer to the end of the book where I felt like it lost a little momentum and the themes started to feel a little murky. Overall, though, a strong debut and a very worthwhile read that is honest and candid about its characters.
Guys, I’m pleased to welcome author Laurie Elizabeth Flynn to the blog – check out some of her thoughts on the themes of Firsts and her favourite book boyfriends!
Mostly YA Lit: Firsts deals with the issue of control in relationships—who has the power, who needs it, and why it matters. I think it’s one of the toughest subjects I’ve seen tackled in YA. Why did you choose to write about this, and how did the idea for Mercedes’ virgin project play into that?
Laurie: That’s a great question! I didn’t so much set out to write about this as the idea found me. As I wrote, I thought more and more about power dynamics in relationships and control—namely, how people latch onto control in one area to keep their lives fixed in place. Mercedes is a girl who felt a severe loss of control at a young age. Through the virgins, she thinks she has found a way to make up for it—a way to be the one calling the shots and telling others what to do. She also tries to compartmentalize so that the people in her life are kept at a safe distance. But as she finds out, people can’t be confined, and sometimes the harder you try to control a situation, the more it spirals away.
MYAL: On a lighter note, Zach is, to me, a near-perfect book boyfriend. Who are some of yours (other than Zach)?
Laurie: Aw, thank you! I absolutely loved writing Zach and I love hearing that he’s book boyfriend material! I have read a lot of books this year with some seriously swoony boys. Some who come to mind right away: Declan from Emily Martin’s The Year We Fell Apart, Evan from Marisa Reichardt’s Underwater, and Grant from Darcy Woods’ Summer of Supernovas.
My ultimate book husband? Rhett Butler from Gone With The Wind. I’ve been swooning over him forever!
MYAL: I loved the dynamics between Mercedes and her two friends Faye and Angela—two people who couldn’t possibly be more different. Tell me a little bit about their development—did you always plan to have two very different girls in Mercy’s life and how did you develop their friendships?
Laurie: When I started writing the book, the only character I knew was Mercedes. The others just kind of appeared on the pages and I got to know them as I wrote. When I wrote down Angela’s name, the image of her sprung into my head and I knew she would be very important to Mercedes. Religion is a big part of Angela’s life, and she plans to wait until she gets married to have sex. In these areas, she’s basically the polar opposite to Mercedes. But Angela helps Mercedes realize that there are different kinds of faith—and putting faith in friends and other people is something Mercedes has been terrified to do. What I love about their friendship is that both girls have a hard time opening up about personal things, but they are loyal to each other and can learn from their differences.
With Faye—oh, Faye. She was probably the character I had the most fun writing. She’s bold, brave, and fierce. She doesn’t waste time wondering what people think about her. In these ways, she’s somebody Mercedes wishes she had the courage to be. The dynamic between Mercedes and Faye is very different than the relationship between Mercedes and Angela. With Faye, Mercedes feels both a strong attraction and an intoxicating sense of possibility, and when she’s unable to distinguish what these feelings mean, she gets confused and frustrated. Faye helps Mercedes realize that the only person she has control
over is herself.
Thanks so much, Laurie, for being on the blog and answering my questions! FIRSTS is out in bookstores now. Have you read it? Are you interested in it and in sex positivity and consent? What are your feelings on girl friendships, slut-shaming, good girls, bad girls? Hit the comments and let me know!