First & Then by Emma Mills
Publisher: Henry Holt & Co
Published: October 2015
Genre: young adult, contemporary
Devon Tennyson wouldn’t change a thing. She’s happy watching Friday night games from the bleachers, silently crushing on best friend Cas, and blissfully ignoring the future after high school. But the universe has other plans. It delivers Devon’s cousin Foster, an unrepentant social outlier with a surprising talent for football, and the obnoxiously superior and maddeningly attractive star running back, Ezra, right where she doesn’t want them: first into her P.E. class and then into every other aspect of her life.
It’s Devon’s senior year, and her counselor is pushing hard for her to be more active in her school for the sake of college applications. But Devon likes being exactly where she is: somewhere in the middle of the popularity pool, best friends with Cas, a high school football fan, and general friendly person. When her awkward cousin Foster arrives after a family crisis, Devon’s plans for senior year derail. What’s more, the school seems to be obsessed with new football star Ezra, and he has taken a liking to the surprisingly athletically-inclined Foster. Devon and Ezra’s lives soon become intertwined, and senior year is starting to become something wholly unexpected.
I should not have been wary about this Pride & Prejudice meets Friday Night Lights retelling/expansion/-inspired novel. But I was! I couldn’t help it. I’m not interested in football, classic retellings tend to not do so well with me (except for this year…I’ve actually been doing pretty well with them!), and the cover actually made me think this was going to be some sort of tragic sob-fest. I’d heard Foster was potentially autistic, and that was another red flag to me too (unfortunately these characters are treated as if they’re weak, and I loathe that!).
So when I opened up to the first chapter and immediately connected with Devon’s voice, I knew I had nothing to worry about. Mills is a gem of a writer. Devon is snarky, witty, sassy, and it’s so easy to fall in friend-love with her. Her voice alone demonstrated the perfect execution of “show, don’t tell” when it came to her friendliness with others in the school, how she was something of a chameleon while still being effortlessly DEVON. Her journey to finding other things to beef up her college applications — topics for her essay, stuff to pad her resume — felt just right for her, rather than forced. And, as an extra bonus, they kept her connected to football!
Ezra’s character was just the right balance of friendly and broody. The best part was that he was broody for a very good reason, one that advanced the plot and added some heft to the story. Foster, likewise, is so authentic, fun, young, a great contrast to Ezra and Devon’s personalities. Almost like a bouncing puppy standing between the two of them at times, Foster just saying what’s on everyone’s minds, with Ezra frowning and Devon scolding him on proper social etiquette.
The parallels to Pride & Prejudice actually felt like a mixture of that and Sense & Sensibility. Mills was able to make this book feel like Austen without sticking to any one particular plot. Reading it, I couldn’t help but notice the similarities (without pinpointing which Austen story it belonged to, except that it FELT SO AUSTEN) and acknowledge that this book was wholly unique on its own. If Austen wrote YA today, Mills nailed it.
The only thing I wanted more of was the rest of Devon’s senior year! How did everything work out?! Mills, why must you torture me like Austen did?!