________________ CM . . . . Volume XXII Number 24. . . .February 26, 2016



Laurie Elizabeth Flynn.
Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martin’s Griffin (Distributed in Canada by Raincoast Books), 2015.
320 pp., hardcover & e-book, $21.99 (hc.).
ISBN 978-1-250-07596-3 (hc.), ISBN 978-1-4668-8732-9 (e-book).

Grades 10 and up / Ages 15 and up.

Review by Joanne Peters.

**** /4

Reviewed from Advance Reading Copy.


Tonight, I'm doing Evan Brown's girlfriend a favor. An awkward, sweaty, fumbling favor. Melanie, or whatever her name is, owes me big time.

Except she'll never know it.

"Wait there,” I tell Evan before slipping into my walk-in closet.

I sneak a glance back at him, at his crouched-over stance on the edge of my bed, his skinny shoulders hunched forward and his hands on his knees. He looks like he's getting ready to play a video game. I stifle a laugh. This is one level he won't beat on the first try.

When I'm carefully ensconced in my walk-in, I wiggle into a pair of pink satin boy shorts and a matching camisole. I know by the fear on his face and the smell of nervous sweat emanating from his armpits that Evan can't handle the black lacy negligee, and especially not the red slip, the one with slit that goes all the way up. . . .

I apply pink lipstick and leave my hair loose around my shoulders. It's wavy, still damp from the shower. Normally, I'd flat iron it into stick-straight submission, but this time, maybe I'll drop the getup. I rub the lipstick off, but the judgment in my eyes remains.

Evan will get what I'm most definitely not - the good girl. (pp. 1-2)


Never judge a book by its cover. It’s quite a contrast to the opening paragraphs of Laurie Flynn’s Firsts, featured in the pull-quote above. The cover photo features a pair of sneaker-clad feet, resting on rumpled white sheets. Those "good girl shoes,”, Converse All-Stars, are worn by Mercedes Ayres, a science brainiac in her senior year at Milton High, in Rancho Palos Verdes, CA. Mercedes (named for the sports car owned by her now-deserted dad) is an A+ student, intent on a placement at MIT ("the holy grail of chemical engineering" (p. 10), a regular attendee at an early morning prayer group which meets in the school library (where else would a school prayer group meet?), and devoted friend of Angela Hirsch, (prayer group leader and staunch defender of premarital chastity). At age 17, Angela is an anomaly at Milton High: a virgin who can barely say the word "sex", believing that it "is a sacred gift that you only give to your husband on your wedding night". (p. 11)

     Ange and Mercedes used to spend plenty of BFF time together, watching mindless movies, reading trashy celebrity mags, drinking herbal tea, and talking endlessly. But, that was before Zach (Mercedes’ chemistry lab partner and Wednesday afternoon sex buddy) and "the virgins." The virgins??? Aren't they nearly as rare as pandas at Milton High, an upper middle-class enclave of preppies, jocks, nerds, geeks, and the usual lot of high school misfits? Not exactly, because Mercedes is committed to an unusual mission: ensuring that her female classmates have a perfect “first time”, a sexual experience that is romantic, special, and completely unlike the one that Mercedes experienced when she first had sex.

     The mission has an unlikely beginning. On the first day of senior year, two of Mercedes’ classmates burst into the girls' bathroom (site of more drama than a theatre class, and more confidences than a confessional), one of them sobbing her heart out. School bathrooms are the best place for teens to take a home pregnancy test, and, when Annalise has two positive results, she knows that her senior year at Milton is over and that her mother will send her to a "special school for pregnant fuck-ups". (p. 30) She's pregnant because her boyfriend refused to wear a condom, a mistake that her friend Jillian will not make when she and her boyfriend, Tommy Hudson, have sex for the first time.

     The two girls are oblivious to Mercedes who overhears all of this while quietly perched on a toilet seat in a bathroom stall, and, even though she really doesn't know Jillian all that well, she's stirred into action. Jill's boyfriend becomes Mercedes' first virgin, and, although nervous herself when he shows up at her house the next evening, Mercedes assumes the fantasy role of his dream girl. At the end of his initiation, Tommy is incredibly grateful, and she is pleased to have found a way to make herself "useful". (p. 32)

     Thus begins a series of such trysts, an unusual sort of "pay-it-forward" scheme for which Mercedes imposes a five-person limit to the number of guys who will be helped by her tutelage. Although the guys are sworn to tell no one (and won’t, because of loss of face with both guy and girlfriends), because "there was always another virgin who needed the service" (p. 33), five becomes ten. Furthermore, each guy (except Tommy Hudson) gets a page in Mercedes’ journal, along with a nickname (the Biter, the Screamer), and a rating out of 10. Her explanation: "Numbers have always made more sense to [her] than people, so narrowing each guy down to a decimal, a rating, made it something logical." (p. 33)

     Mercedes is not a prostitute. She's not making money by "tutoring" these guys - her parents' divorce settlement provides extremely well for her and her mother, who spends her money on clothes, "expensive champagne and the kind of plastic surgery that everyone gets but no one admits to". (p. 10) Mercedes is not cold-hearted or ruthless, but her enjoyment seems limited to her engagement in the instructional process (at which she is an ace). Only with Zach does she really seem to enjoy sex, and their Wednesday lunch-hour assignations are truly anticipated by both of them. They're not shacking up at the local Motel 6, or in the back of her Jeep, either. Her tutorials with the virgins and her hours with Zach take place at home, the former in her bedroom, and the latter anywhere the moment takes them.

     Doesn't her mother ever notice any of this activity? Well, Kim (that's what Mercedes calls her, never "Mom") is a truly self-involved 46-year-old who "doesn't feel a day over twenty". (p. 26). Kim doesn't spend much time of any sort with her daughter, and Mercedes is so annoyed with her mother’s overall lack of interest in her life, that she is in a state of continual resentment. Now, that could be said about many mother-teenage daughter relationships, and, although Kim does tries harder to develop a relationship as the story continues, it's hard to like Kim. Kim spends her evenings at a bar somewhere, cruising for men younger than she is, and her days at the gym, the mall, or at trendy lunch spots with an equally shallow group of cosmetic-surgery improved friends. As for her schoolmates, Mercedes’ school wardrobe is so completely different from her walk-in closet full of seduction costumes that they’d never guess. Besides, she attends that morning prayer group, the one that meets in the library.

     However, human chemistry is different from the analytical chemistry at which Mercedes excels. So, despite having set a limit of 10 virgins, Mercedes (whose name, translated from the Spanish, can mean either “favour”, or “mercy”) soon finds herself with Jeremy Roth, nicknamed “Unlucky Thirteen”. Inexplicably, with him, she breaks many of the rules she has set up for her encounters with the virgins: “I never let guys sleep over, I never let guys have a third time. Not even a second time. That’s not part of the plan. My system only works because it is a system, a routine with an order to it. I am reliable, or at least I used to be.” (p. 103) Her shame is not about having sex: it’s about having lost control of herself, and the whole mission of mercy soon begins to go very badly.

     Complications with other characters start to arise faster than bubbles in a boiling beaker. There’s Faye, a stunning blonde who is new to Milton High and who becomes Angela’s new lab partner in chemistry class. Faye seems to be interested in Zach (who is interested in Mercedes as a real girlfriend, not just as a “friend with benefits”), and rather curiously, Faye seems interested in Mercedes, too. There’s Charlie, Angela’s all-American boyfriend, who asks Mercedes to accompany him on a lingerie-shopping expedition. Charlie also attends prayer group and, to the best of everyone’s knowledge, is a virgin, too, so why the lingerie? Especially because Mercedes knows that “lingerie and sex are virtually indistinguishable. And if a guy buys you lingerie, it’s definitely with the intent that you’re going to sleep with him.” (p. 133) And soon after Mercedes is betrayed by “the Bad Actor”, who sleeps with Mercedes only so that his girlfriend will dump him because he’s a cheater, she is “outed”, and her activities of the past year goes viral. Her journal has been stolen, and a webcam, which someone has secretly hidden in her bedroom has video-recorded her sexual tutorials. The video is posted on the Internet and, of course, it goes viral.

     I’m not going to tell you how it all ends, because, before the story resolves, there are twists, turns, and more revelations than are seen in a Victoria’s Secret dressing room. But, I’ll tell you this: Mercedes lands that coveted placement at MIT “as one of the most talented and promising students in the most competitive applicant pool in the history of the Institute.” (p. 253) Throughout the entire novel, Mercedes has made guarded references to Luke, and, in the final chapters of the book, readers finally learn the details of her relationship with him. She was only 13 when they got together, too young to see him as a charming but manipulative user. The aftermath of that experience led her to undertake her mission of sexual mercy.

     Firsts is an amazing first novel. Laurie Flynn has an uncanny talent for capturing the nuances of adolescent dialogue, and Mercedes is witty, smart, and “punny”. The superficiality of an affluent, upper middle-class high school is presented in all of its clichéd ignominy, and the bitchy cruelty of the girls who slut-shame Mercedes is genuine. Mercedes is a complex character, and, although you may not agree with or understand her reasons for doing what she does, you cannot help but admire her honesty. It’s also a cautionary tale about the inadvisability of early sexual activity. Young teen girls are still pressured to have sex by much older high school guys, and the emotional fall-out is catastrophic when they’ve been dumped. As for the adults in this book, Mercedes’ parents are self-involved, wealthy suburbanites, and her teachers are a boring lot, but often, that’s how adolescents see us. Just wait until they’re our age.

     I really enjoyed Firsts, and I think that it will be equally enjoyed by female readers who are a lot like Mercedes: smart, strong, and incisive. Guys might enjoy it, if they are as sensitive as Mercedes’ wannabe-boyfriend, Zach, but I think the book is too female-focussed to be an easy sell to a male audience. The frank language and sexual content didn’t faze me one bit, but anyone thinking of acquiring this book for a high school library had better read it, cover to cover, and be fully prepared to come up with an solid rationale for its inclusion, just in case there is a challenge. Professional experience tells me that there may be parents, staff members (yes, fellow teachers), and even students who will see this book as completely unsuitable as a school library acquisition, as little more than high school porn. But, based on my experience of 32 years as a high school teacher, and overhearing plenty of student conversation in the classroom, halls, and library (of course, they’d never dream that I’d be listening), anyone who thinks high school students aren’t having sex is in a state of denial. Firsts is definitely for an older high school audience (grade 10 and up), and it’s definitely worth reading.

Highly Recommended.

Joanne Peters is a retired teacher-librarian in Winnipeg, MB, (who, unlike Mrs. Woods, the teacher-librarian in Firsts, always wears fashionable eye-glasses, not the “bottle-cap” style).

To comment on this title or this review, send mail to cm@umanitoba.ca.

Copyright © the Manitoba Library Association. Reproduction for personal use is permitted only if this copyright notice is maintained. Any other reproduction is prohibited without permission.
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The Manitoba Library Association
ISSN 1201-9364
Hosted by the University of Manitoba.

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