Devon Tennyson doesn’t know what she wants from life. Apart from her best friend Cas to fall in love with her. And for her annoying cousin, Foster, recently sent by his ‘troubled’ mother to live in her house, to leave her alone.
But neither of those things seem to be happening. Instead she has to take gym class with Foster, and deal with his budding friendship with the attractive but socially inadequate jock, Ezra.
Meanwhile Cas is off falling in love with Lindsey, the nicest girl in the world.
If First and Then, by Emma Mills had come out when I was seventeen, I would have lost my freaking mind. It achieves the perfect balance between romance and good old Life Lessons. If Sarah Dessen and John Green had a baby, it would be called Emma Mills. I want to open a worm-hole and throw this book back six years to my seventeen-year-old self.
(aside: Oh dear god I can’t believe I was seventeen six years ago.)
(I just paused writing this review to text this realisation to like five people.)
‘My college essay was entitled “School Lunches, TS High and Me,” and it was every bit as terrible as you’d expect.’
So goes the opening line of First and Then. Devon is sitting with a teacher going over her lacklustre college applications. She was going for the ‘witty’ essay, but it didn’t work out so well, mainly because she was writing it during the commercial breaks of the previous night’s television. Devon doesn’t care all that much. But, I should add, she is completely charming in her apathy.
You read a lot of driven YA heroines. There are a lot of girls saving universes or falling hopelessly in love with a guy that they just have to have, but there aren’t all that many that aren’t especially bothered by it all. Devon hasn’t figured out what she’s passionate about in life yet. She’s smart, funny and confident, but she lacks anywhere to channel that energy. She’s applying to a college because she liked the picture on the front of the brochure. Even though she’s been into him forever, she doesn’t actually believe that her relationship with Cas will ever develop into something more. Devon is a witty retort followed by a shrug, and I loved that about her.
I really empathised with Devon, because when I was at school, I didn’t care much either. Honestly, I was ninety-percent of the way through before it started to feel like it mattered. What Emma Mills does really well is to explore how insular the high school world is, and how it can be hard to really care about the future when the present is the only sort of life that you know. It’s hard to imagine a new place and different people, when this place and these people have been the everyday reality for-literally-ever.
I was talking about this not caring thing with my mum a couple days ago and she said that she’d gathered that from my school reports. I always thought my reports were amazing, so I was like how?
Mum: they were fine, just a little… indifferent.
That was a revelation. Both that my reports weren’t as good as I had always thought and that I was so apathetic that I didn’t even notice.
Anyway, back to Devon. I absolutely loved the parts of the book dedicated to her evolving relationship with Foster. He’s come to live with them after circumstances with his mum had become so bad there was no other option. He never talks about it. Devon doesn’t know how to talk about it either. Her family has been stable her whole life – the biggest upheaval being Foster’s arrival – so she doesn’t know how to relate to anything that’s happened to him. And yet they manage it, in the occasionally aggressive, frequently misguided way that siblings do. The writing of Foster is beautifully subtle. I could probably count on one hand the amount of times he directly addresses his history in the book. Mills deftly navigates it, and without going into too much detail leaves us with the impression of his pain. Mostly she just lets him get on with being the weird and wonderful human that he is.
Devon’s growing dedication to Foster was my favourite part of the book. The moments are fleeting, but, you could draw a map across First and Then detailing the journey Foster takes from being Devon’s cousin to her brother. All Devon’s character development is like this. There is no flash of understanding after which all is revealed to her. Instead, you get small insights into the person that she could be. Like during her trip to her college of choice. The example of what life after high school could look like lights a fire under her that carries her through the rest of the book. She even rewrites the essay without the TV on. It’s not complete yet, but the vague outline of what she wants floats to the top of the pool of options and expectations.
And the romance… No spoilers, but a certain boy in this book may have renewed my faith in the broody types.
Just read it.