Wednesday, September 7, 2016

A Sex-Positive Story With a Slightly Disappointing Ending: Firsts by Laurie Elizabeth Flynn

First by Laurie Elizabeth Flynn

Publisher: St. Martin's Griffin
Release: January 5, 2016
Source: Library
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.
Every reader knows the feeling—the feeling of finding a book that provides exactly the story you need at the precise time you need it. Sometimes expected, sometimes surprising, but always satisfying, these books can complement a good mood or improve a bad day—and Firsts provided me with exactly this kind of tale. I read it during a long day—a day that began with an early-morning plane ride and a cancelled connecting flight that left me stranded in the Denver International Airport for eleven hours. The experience featured plenty of exhaustion and boredom, and without the help of quality reading material, the minutes, which dragged by like hours, would have passed even more slowly. But Laurie Elizabeth Flynn's debut, with its thought-provoking messages and engaging plot, provided the exact amount of entertainment and mental stimulation that I needed.

Firsts is, first and foremost, a story centered around sex positivity, adopting an accepting attitude toward a variety of choices regarding teenage sexuality. Mercedes, of course, obliterates traditional ideas of how young women should behave as well as the role sex should play in society; she invites boys into her bedroom regularly and views the subsequent events as a practical arrangement, a philanthropic deed done for the boys' girlfriends. On the other end of the spectrum is her best friend Angela, who has been in a relationship for two years but, by her own choice more than by pressure from her family or her church, "won't even say the word 'sex' until she gets married." But despite their differences, both girls (as well as several other characters) are portrayed as smart and autonomous, making decisions that, while open to interpretation from readers, are doubtlessly deliberate. The result is a story that is inclusive and accepting of all safe and consensual choices—and that simultaneously emphasizes the importance of the aforementioned safety and consent.

Even better, the character's decisions regarding sex do not merely exist to make a point or to move the plot along; they also drive personality development. Mercedes's choices help readers understand the aftermath of her own first sexual encounter—a scarring experience that is fabulously eluded to before an emotional reveal. And as she begins to question whether or not to continue her "extracurricular" (and as it begins to crumble in a series of events that will have readers entirely invested), the pseudo-confidence she gains from teaching boys how to treat their girlfriends evolves into real self-assurance. Meanwhile, Angela's abstinence relates to her religiosity (a correlation that, if cliché, is certainly realistic for some teens). The same is true, to a slightly less detailed degree for other spotlighted characters, creating a cast full of solid backstories and satisfying development.

The only character whose background leaves a bit to be desired is Zach, Mercedes's maybe-possibly boyfriend; although he is sweet and adorable and grows symbiotically with the protagonist, he has minimal personality outside of the context of the plot. I wish the story would have included more information about his external interests and relationships, creating a more layered character rather than one who seems just slightly like a plot device.

Aside from Zach, I have only one more complaint about Firsts: toward the end, the plot becomes a bit melodramatic. I won't go into detail for fear of spoilers, but I will say that the story includes a handful of theoretically-possible-but-unlikely (in my opinion) events and choices that might require some suspension of belief. This creative license, however, is largely justified by its ability to further the plot and strengthen relationships—I barely found myself minding as I sped through the final 100 pages.

And besides, even if the ending had bothered me more than the minimal amount it did, I could not help recommending Firsts on the basis of Mercedes's fantastic character and her story's feminist, sex-positive message. Complete with a protagonist who has a passion for chemistry and a dream of attending MIT (I've mentioned before how much I love STEM-centered YA characters) as well as spot-on ideas about sex and the role it should play in society, Firsts had me hooked from the moment I read its blurb. The plot deals with issues from absentee parents to slut-shaming in a way that will evoke emotions from empathy to outrage, then soothe the resulting turmoil with empowering themes of acceptance. If you have yet to read a YA novel that specifically tackles teenage sexuality in an open, clever, and original way, I highly recommend that Firsts be your first time. 

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