When I was 15, I would not have picked up Emma Mills debut novel FIRST & THEN. I didn’t (and don’t) care much for sports, and then I had little patience for “realistic fiction” about angsty teens and their lives. I was busy enough living my own.
So no, I would not have read FIRST&THEN–and I would have missed out on a lovely book.
It’s a small story–main character Devon and her thoughts and struggles as she navigates the fall of her senior year of high school, with family upheavals, friend drama, and self-discovery. It’s also a book that feels unfinished, ending ‘in the middle of a sentence’ as it were, like THE FAULT IN OUR STARS, but less heart-wrenching. And by ‘unfinished’ I do not mean the book is at fault, merely that it occupies this brief moment in time in Devon’s life. Some things are about to end, other things are about to begin, and we as readers will never get to see the outcome. Where does she go to college? How do her relationships with her friends and family evolve? We don’t know, and I don’t think we need to know. The scope of the book is one lesson she learns, and that’s all that’s necessary for a good story. Somehow, in the details of everyday life, Mills evokes the looming fear of the future and the growing sense of limbo and in-between-ness I remember from being 17.
As I’ve grown up, I care more about characters and writing quality in stories, less about plot and trappings. As such part of me wants to critique the book for having Devon be ‘too average’ or ‘too blind to her individual talents’, as so many YA books rely on a blank-slate main character for broad appeal. But she’s not actually average and part of the book is her journey to see her own value, so I’m inclined to say it works. Likewise, I think anyone who’s been a teenager understands the feeling of being outside looking in, not knowing where they fit or what their strengths are, and Mills has captured that facet of the experience with finesse.
It’s impossible to read this book, now, as a nearly-24-year-old, without pangs of nostalgia and grown-up-ness. I want to reach back and tell her “It’s ok! Do something in college and it’ll be ok. I know it feels like the entire world, and to you, at this moment, it is–but there is so much more, and it’ll be ok.” I think it’s important to remember, as an adult, how that felt, as too often I see parents and grown-ups shrug off high-school emotions as ‘irrational angst.’ And I, as an ex-terrified teenager, want to smack them and remind them what it felt like to have their entire world turn upside down and expand ten-fold. There were a couple key moments in my youth when, if an adult had said “your feelings are valid”, it would have saved me a hell of a lot of worry and fear. This book reminds me that some day I should be that adult my younger self wanted.
Are you a teenager? Have you been a teenager? Do you have a teenager? Then perhaps you should give this book a look-see, for a sports-themed journey into the space between high school and college. On Amazon, B&N, and elsewhere.