Title: First and Then (2015)
Author: Emma Mills
Genre: Young Adult, Contemporary
Extent: 272 pages
Review: Devon Tennyson is content for things to just stay the same as always. She’s happy to go with the flow and to let things happen, not at all concerned with what other people her age should probably be concerned about. But first came Foster, a cousin who has come to stay with them for a while, and then came Ezra, who somehow sees Foster’s potential as a footballer and offers to train him… and already Devon’s life is turning upside-down, inside-out.
I picked up this book thinking I was going into another typical Young Adult Contemporary novel, and in some parts, I was right. The usual elements are definitely there—a somewhat-average, somewhat-unremarkable protagonist, a love interest, a family issue—but First and Then, to me, rather epitomises the coming-of-age sub-genre.
I was surprised by how much I liked Devon. In the beginning, I found her a little bit irritating—directionless, somewhat petulant, and even downright rude to Foster sometimes—but by the end, she had developed so much that I even felt proud of her. She learned a lot and understood herself so much better that she finally figured out what it was she actually wanted, and she went for it.
Her relationship with Ezra was overall really cute—I giggled when they flirted, frowned when they got angry and cheered when they called each other out on their shortcomings. Hardly any relationship is smooth-sailing and all ups without downs, and I greatly appreciated the realism of this particular one.
Now, I might have liked Devon, but I loved Foster. To me, he was the highlight of this whole book. He was a little bit broken given his history, perhaps, but he was also completely endearing, patient and mature, sometimes more than Devon was. I really enjoyed how much he looked up to Devon and the progression of their relationship from annoyed strangers, to tentative friends, and then loving siblings. No joke, I aww-ed a couple of times in real life, and my heart did that stupid squeezing thing when I was filled with ~emotions~.
“Don’t stick up for him. I know he’s like your role model or whatever, but just… don’t.”
“He’s not.” Foster fumbled with his seatbelt. “You are.”
I also really like all, and I mean all, the other characters, which I found is rare. I like how Devon’s parents were so willing to help Foster out; it was one of the very rare times in YA fiction where I want to gratefully hug a set of parents rather than face-palm and rant about them. I like Devon’s friends, especially Jordan, who was very witty and funny that his presence almost always elicited a laughter from me. I like Rachel for her determination to get into a good college and her efficiency in getting things done. I like Lindsay because she, too, was flawed in her own way, that she was just another normal girl who likes the same guy and not at all black-and-white like many fictional love rivals are.
Plot-wise, I found First and Then it to be more about character growth, self-identity, and family love rather than anything else, and I actually really appreciated that. The things that happened in Devon’s life could easily happen in anyone else’s life, and her problems were so relatable that it transported me straight back into the times I was in high school… and in a good way, too.
“When you love something, you can’t be happy all the time, can you? Like, that’s why you love it. It makes you feel all kinds of things, not just happy. It can hurt, it can make you fucking mad, but… it makes you feel something, you know?”
The only thing that I didn’t really enjoy was the amount of Jane Austen references scattered in the book. I get it—liking a classic novel or author seems to be a thing that various YA protagonists just have to do, but at certain points it just felt like Mills is putting in references because she thought it was a good time to do so, making it a bit awkward, unnatural or forced.
Even with that drawback, however, First and Then is one of my favourite reads of the year so far. Mills did a really good job on characterisation—they were all realistic, flawed and yet endearing, with realistic personalities and relationships—and I particularly love, love, love the family theme that underpins this story. It was also really great to see a heroine grow and develop as much as Devon has.