Review: Firsts by Laurie Elizabeth Flynn

Firsts - Laurie Elizabeth Flynn

Initial reaction: I'm sorely in the minority of opinions about this book, but I'm sitting here in the aftermath of this book thinking, in gif form:


My outrage is less about the situation Mercy finds herself in for the latter part of the novel (which is messy, but I figured it would go that route) and has more to do with the complete misrepresentation of consent, cheating and rape (via coerced consent and blackmail) that this novel puts forward. Also, sexual stereotypes abound. It really pissed me off.

Full review:

*exhales slowly* If only this was the kind of review where I could say - "I hated it. Anti-feminist, anti-sex positive. Nothing more to say. Goodnight everybody." Nah, not that simple.

I think this is one of those books where if it had been treated with a lot more sensitivity and recognition for the issues within, I would've been more supportive. But while it's clear that Mercy/Mercedes has an unhealthy attitude about sex due to the circumstances, figures, and experiences she's had in her life - I honestly don't understand why the narrative failed to address these issues in an honest way. It feels like the narrative just glossed over them and Mercy never really has a true coming to terms with...well, anything. When I tagged this book as being "false advertising" - that's exactly what it is. It doesn't address any of its respective issues with the kind of weight it deserved. And let me be clear, this book is marketed as sex-positive and anti-slut shaming - but it is clearly NOT. There's slut shaming and constant sexual shaming throughout this darned book - and it's a harmful compilation of sexual stereotypes.

Sexual relations are complex topics to discuss enough when pertaining to adults, but discussing it in terms of teens gives it another level of complexity that not many people are prepared to dive into. I was prepared to give Laurie Elizabeth Flynn props for taking it head on, but what I got out of this read was just one more narrative that describes what I find to be the problem with a good portion of New Adult novels - sex being used as a means, being defined as a method of escapism, of a measure to feel "normal" and objectify rather than as the experience and choice that it is. In an ideal world, sexual choices would be respected for what they are and not be used as a means to label, objectify, criticize, or dehumanize/demean people. But yet this book plays right into the hand of those stereotypes rather than showing them for what they are.

The premise for this book is interesting and has a ton of potential talking points that it could've expounded upon. I knew that from the moment I heard Mercy/Mercedes was enacting a measure where she would help guys lose their virginity and purportedly have more confidence in their relationships with their girlfriends, it would be a book with some heavy topics to deal with. Not to mention a heavy fallout because you're talking about cheating - because these are guys that ARE IN RELATIONSHIPS - and the multiple sexual relationships that have the potential to be outed, Mercy potentially being used by guys who weren't really virgins, etc. I knew there would be fallout and that it would be hard to watch. I just didn't expect the execution of it to be undermined or not called for what it is. Mercy is a young woman who really doesn't have ownership of her body or control over her situation - she's "damaged" and seeking control. Which isn't so much being sex positive as much as it is compensating for a horrible situation.

A pertinent quote from the narrative - which was noted towards the end of the book:

I told Angela all about Luke in the letter...I told her that I don’t blame Luke for what I have been doing, that what he did to me doesn’t make it right for me to sleep with other girls’ boyfriends. I told her that I don’t even know if I really enjoy sex or if I just like the control I feel during it. I told her that I really did want to make them better at it so that their girlfriends would have better first times than I did. That was a big part of it for me, no matter how wrong it sounds out loud or how bad it looks on paper.

Considering what happened to Mercy, her first time was NOT a first time: it was a violation. And there isn't much expansion or notation to where Mercy calls it for what it is. SPOILERS:



She was raped at 13, was pregnant - and dismissed/discredited by her rapist - but had a miscarriage. At no point in the narrative does Mercy ever say outright that she was raped, which is odd, because there are tons of examples in YA - "The Way I Used To Be", "Faking Normal", etc. where rape/attempted rape is called out for what it is and cited by their protagonists. Why doesn't Flynn note it as well?

(show spoiler)

While this point isn't revealed until much later in the narrative, it's alluded to throughout the novel, so I wasn't surprised when the reveal came about. But I suppose I'm getting ahead of myself because, there's a lot of problematic build-up to the end of the novel. I don't consider bringing the book to a more positive ending in the last three chapters to compensate for how problematic this book was through the majority of the narrative.

As I mentioned, Mercy's efforts aim in teaching several different guys how to be sexually experienced with their girlfriends in an effort to help them have the first time she never had. She instructs them, expects them to keep confidential to avoid fallout and complication with their girlfriends. She's self aware enough to know that this is a flawed plan and wants to stop herself at a certain point, but can't. (This almost feels like a sex addiction of some sort.) Plus, she keeps a secret notebook that ranks the guys based on their performance with her (which reminds me a little of what I hated in the YA work "Kissing Ted Callihan" - the protagonist there is caught with not really defining her multiple relationships to the people she's with, keeps a notebook about it, but it gets leaked. The protagonist in that never really came to terms with the repercussions of her actions and somehow it all worked out in her favor in an unrealistic way.)

The presentation of said encounters is discomforting to say the least, with Mercy outright telling one boy to ignore consent issues, one boy coercing her into another round of sex, and then another outright blackmailing her into having sex with him. I was horrified to see this in the novel, especially when consent and mutual respect for one's boundaries in any relationship, including sexual relations, are essential. These encounters were not just uncomfortable situations or things to be passed off as Mercy does in the novel, it was sexual assault/rape. I don't know how they could be passed off and remain unmentioned in the narrative in the way they were. It's inexcusable.

All the while, Mercy's not really in a relationship save her sexual flings with Zach (notably on Wednesdays). It's clear that Zach wants to be more than just her Chemistry partner and sex partner, but Mercy's afraid that she'll hurt him if there are more strings attached - since she doesn't have or want a boyfriend.

Mercy's situation is even more complicated in the measure that she's basically lying to everyone around her, including herself. She masks her relationships under a facade coupled by her friendship with Angela.

Direct quote:

I met Angela at prayer group in grade nine, which I only started going to because Kim was pushing me to find a boyfriend and naturally, I told her I wanted to join a convent instead. Angela is why I kept the charade up. And this year, the bonus has been that it makes an excellent cover for my pay-it-forward scheme. Even if there were a rumor or two, who would suspect the girl who’s almost a nun?

Mercy doesn't have parents in her life who seem to care about her. Her father is out of the picture (he does show up later in the novel) because of the divorce from her mother, Kim. Kim on the other hand doesn't seem to care what her daughter does and is noted that she would applaud some of Mercy's "bad" decisions because of Kim's own sexual pursuits.

Another direct quote:

Usually I do everything in my bed. Besides sleeping and having sex, I also study in it, watch movies, read books. I have a desk but barely use it. Kim used to chastise my attachment to my bed. “Don’t become one of those fatties who lay around all day and end up with bedsores,” she said once, when I was holed up in my room, poring over my notes before finals. Now, when she’s around to see a new guy come in or leave, her eyes flash with something resembling pride. Better a slut than a fatty with bedsores.

Slut shaming AND weight shaming? How about no. (There are jokes in here with referencing an eating disorder that I wasn't comfortable with either.)

When Faye comes into the picture as a new student, Mercy is half amused by her and half repelled. There are a number of times when Mercy (internally) shames her because of being jealous of Zach's attention to her, but there were other times when I think the narrative was baiting a potential f-f relationship between Faye and Mercy. While I could appreciate if the narrative were exploring parts of Mercy's sexuality, something about the exploration seemed off to me in terms of the presentation.

Ultimately, Mercy ends up being outed by one of her sexual pursuits (one who ties her up and videotapes her while they're having sex, while another gets and uses the footage to blackmail her even as he's the boyfriend of Mercy's friend). The fallout is brutal for Mercy, though what Zach and Faye do to take the attention off Mercy didn't sit well with me in the least (a sex tape just to take the dialogue away from her? AND Faye gets expelled from school while Zach doesn't get punished as harshly? The sexism in this book is rampant because it ends up focusing on male desire and sexuality more even as Mercy is purportedly helping the guys she's helping to give the girls more meaningful first times. The logic here is really skewed and not well presented at all.)

I feel like this book does more harm in terms of addressing teenage sexuality than it does good. It really doesn't address any of its respective issues with the responsibility needed to have some of its more meaningful contributions hit home, while other issues - like questionable consent, sexual assault, rape, sexual shaming (not just slut shaming) - gets under addressed or ignored entirely.

In the end, I would not recommend this narrative. I think I'm still waiting for a book that really feels sex-positive, body-positive, and doesn't rely on stereotypes to get its point across. This could've been so much better and had more talking points than what it provided.

Overall score: 1/5 stars.

Note: I received this as an ARC from NetGalley, from the publisher.