First & Then by Emma Mills

First and Then is best described as Friday Night Lights meets Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. If inspired, it could be a ‘Clueless’ for the millennial generation. Unfortunately, we don’t have that here. Frustrating and contradictory writing along with contradictory and boring characters left me very unaffected. It’s an easy read but not rewarding in the end. I’d even characterize First & Then as a decent little romance for those who haven’t read Austen but probably a disappointment for those who have.

Story: Devon is a high school senior who isn’t sure what she wants with her life. She hasn’t figured out where to go to college, is unsure about her new ‘brother’ Foster – a cousin whose mother abandoned him to her family, and she has never understood why guy pal Cas never grew to like her in the same way she likes him. When Foster develops a talent for football, she’ll also have to deal with the frustrating Ezra – star quarterback and inscrutable ‘hautie’.

First and foremost, the writing was problematic for me. Far too often, a scene would suddenly change and I’d have to go back and reread just to figure out why someone was saying something totally weird in the middle of a conversation. Usually, it was just that it was suddenly 4 hours later but there was no break in the paragraphs or any other way to say that the scene was changing. As well, there weren’t a lot of clues as to directions of the verbal conversations so I had to keep rereading to figure out just what someone was talking about. E.g., prostitots was shortened to PTs somewhere in the middle of the book and I’d have to go back and figure out what the heck the characters were referring to. There were so many times characters said things and we weren’t given references for what was said and why (important verbal clues are lost in print) – and so it was easy to get lost.

Speaking of prositots – I had to hard time liking Devon. Imagine Elizabeth Bennet slut-shaming every female who came near Wickham or Darcy and I doubt anyone would have liked her. That was really the problem i had with Devon – I didn’t like her or even want her to be with any guy. She was disaffected, distanced, and judgmental of everyone. It didn’t feel reserved – it felt disaffected and I had a hard time buying Ezra’s interest in her. Add in odd characters such a fey Marabelle (whose situation isn’t explained in any way) and I had no idea what was going on here. Later moments ‘bonding’ with cousin/brother Foster and a heartfelt “Persuasion” letter from love interest Ezra came far too late to really like Devon.

There were also minor quibbles – things such as Devon complaining that Austen characters never kiss until the very end and then we get the same thing in First and Then; it really feels disingenuous. Similarly, saying that Devon gets along with people naturally and then reading a whole book where she puts everyone down or distances herself from them also strikes a false note. Yes, she does have some character growth in the end and learns not to slut shame quite as often – but it’s too late by then.

I think if I was still 14 and without a lot of reading experience, I wouldn’t have noticed or be bothered by the above issues as much. But First & Then didn’t have the fun of Clueless, the biting wit of 10 Things I Hate About You, or the panache of Luhrman’s Romeo + Juliet (YA updates of Austen and Shakespeare). You can take the structure of a novel – the most superficial elements of its plot – but if you don’t take the heart and soul, it’s going to be a shallow and unfulfilling an update. Reviewed from an advance reader copy provided by the publisher.

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