Verdict: A touching look at the thrill of first love between two (mostly) non-standard YA characters. While the book treats its characters – and love – seriously, there is plenty of humor and fun here too. Why only three hearts? Well…some little things and some spoilers below in the hacking section…
Perfect for: Readers who want to read a more mature and less fantastical version of Bridge to Terabithia or Stargirl. People who like romance stories, obvs.
Summary: Gray notices Dylan at his community college campus and wonders why this new girl is always acting so conspicuously weird and different from all the students who try to blend in (like he does). When they finally meet, Gray is both fascinated and repelled by this confident, strange girl, while Dylan feels it is her personal mission to get Gray to lighten up and have some creative fun. Over time they become friends – and more than friends – but can a relationship between such different people last? The book is told in alternating first person narratives from Gray and Dylan.
At first I thought this story was going to be yet another instance of a Manic Pixie Dream Girl “saving” a depressed young man from his angst with her relentlessly charming shenanigans. (FYI, from Wikipedia:
Film critic Nathan Rabin, who coined the term [Manic Pixie Dream Girl] after seeing Kirsten Dunst in Elizabethtown (2005), describes the MPDG as “that bubbly, shallow cinematic creature that exists solely in the fevered imaginations of sensitive writer-directors to teach broodingly soulful young men to embrace life and its infinite mysteries and adventures.”)
After all, Dylan does things like photograph lizards while lying on the ground, name her shoes and all other inanimate objects, and likes to declare that she does one random thing every day. Meanwhile, Gray is pretty grumpy and even a little dismissive of Dylan, so why on earth would she want to spend time with him unless this is a MPDG scenario? But over the course of the novel, it becomes clear that Dylan is not “bubbly, shallow”, that Gray has legit reasons for being sad, that both characters are pretty self-aware about their own and each other’s flaws and quirks, and that they have real reasons to be attracted to each other.
In many ways, this book reminded me of other albeit younger books where outgoing quirky girls encourage “normal” boys to come out of their shell and embrace life – the main examples are Bridge to Terabithia and Stargirl. Like those two books, First Come Love’s story of friendship and love is tinged with sadness, but unlike them, it is grounded firmly in reality and has no fantastical elements. It also has sex, but more on that later…
It’s really fun to see Gray loosen up and start to have fun hanging out with Dylan, and soon they both show that they can be quirky and creative, whether it is taking pictures of cacti that look like they are giving the finger or using their collective (and limited) knowledge of sign language to create saucy sentences.
There is definitely a bit of a philosophical vibe in this book. These two older teens sometimes seem perceptive beyond their years about life, but I bought it because both characters are very much the observer-types. Here’s Gray relating Dylan’s thoughts on high school:
“She told me she grew up in a small town where life was safe, but that was the problem. It was too known, too predictable. It’s hard to feel adventurous when you know where every road leads. It’s hard to be unique when everyone in high school is grouped together and pre-labeled, like a packaged brand.
Then Gray continues:
“I nod because I can relate. In high school so much of your life is already scheduled out for you, you barely feel like you are living it – more like you are assigned it. Your future doesn’t loom – it just sways lazily like an old familiar blanket drying on a clothesline in the sun.”
Yep, sounds about right. I can relate, too. Here’s Gray on the “predictable and painful” way that young people get together romantically:
“You check her out and catch her checking you out. You picture her naked, while she refers to the mutual sexual attraction as ‘chemistry’. Now it’s time for the personality profiling. You make small talk between classes or after school or at work. You attempt to show subtle interest without being to obvious…You play it safe. Send witty text messages. Make sure you’ve downloaded your bet pics online…There’s only one conclusion to draw from this digital slideshow: You’re a Catch. Once that definitive answer is reached, eventually, you hang out in person and let your oddball shine through. And this is where things usually go bad…”
That sounds about right, too. Definitely cynical, but there is definitely truth in that description. And this mating ritual applies to the post-HS set, too (unfortunately). What makes this love story fun to read is that Dylan and Gray do not partake in this lame mating ritual, but instead are open and up front with each other and for it.
Okay, this next section might get a little spoiler-y, so let me just say here that I thought the depiction of sex and love was one of the most honest I’ve seen in YA. If you want to know more, highlight the below to reveal some spoilers:
Sex. Dylan and Gray eventually have it. Most of the sex scenes are told from Gray’s perspective, and as a teen boy, Gray is most enthusiastic to tell you about it. It’s not super-graphic but its not euphemistic either. The decision to have sex together is reached by the characters in a mutually respectful way. After the first time they have sex, Gray is ecstatic (but a little ashamed about his performance) and Dylan is happy but a little disappointed. So they agree that practice makes perfect and they have more sex. A lot more sex. Gray wants to have it all the time, in part because he wants to figure out how to make it super-enjoyable for Dylan. If I had a sexually active teen, I’d want them to read this book because it depicts sex pretty realistically, and shows how two people who love and respect each other can have a wonderful time doing it. You know, Doing. It.
Love. The book also depicts love very realistically. Most of the falling in love emotions are shown through Gray’s narration and the book captures those emotions perfectly. After the characters part, both Gray and Dylan accurately show how painful it is to lose a great love.
So I have a few hacklets I would want to make to this book to make it even better. First is the cover and its inside flap. Obviously the cover and title were created so that people who want to read a romance will know what this book is about and buy it/ read it. But the cover really does disservice to the story. The girl looks nothing the way Dylan is described and does not capture the quirkiness of the characters or their romance. The inside flap is strangely misleading where it says:
“But staying in love is not as easy as falling in love. If Dylan and Gray want their love to last, they’re going to have to learn that sometimes love means having to say you’re sorry.”
What???? That quote totally misrepresents the story. It makes it seem as if one or both characters does something horrible to the other and that there needs to be some kind of epic forgiveness. But that is not the case at all.
Next up: the title and all the chapter headings. OK, so you see a title “First Comes Love, and you think of that childhood chant immediately, don’t you? “First come love, then comes marriage, then comes Susie in the baby carriage”. I can assure you that there is not marriage or babies in this book, so why the title? Even knowing where the story goes I don’t understand the title It seems like the publisher picked it just because it has the word “love” in it and it’s a well-known phrase. And then, for whatever reason, the theme of the title gets carried into these tortured chapter headings: “First Meet”, “First Unfold”, “First Trust”, “First Realize”.
The last thing that bothered me about this book is a spoiler: I just couldn’t believe that neither Gray (19 and a top athlete…I mean COME ON!) nor Dylan (18 and a free spirit who likes to say “I love you” to lots of people) are virgins when they meet. For the purposes of the story it is very touching (pardon the pun) to see how these first-time lovers discover sex together, but it seemed pretty unrealistic to me that it was the first time for either of them.
Remember the definition of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl above? Well the Wikipedia entry goes on to say:
“MPDGs are said to help their men without pursuing their own happiness, and such characters never grow up, thus their men never grow up.”
Unfortunately, I felt that the book met this aspect of the definition. SPOILER: Dylan breaks up with Gray because she wants to explore the world, learn who she is, and not get trapped by Gray’s choices in life. Sad but awesome, right? I really wish the book had ended with this choice sticking. I wish that Gray had met someone new and realized how much Dylan had helped prepare him for other relationships, and vice versa. I wish Dylan had been allowed to go forth on her adventures. I felt that the ending wussed out by having Dylan come back to Gray and I actually felt that it was a little bit grossly co-dependent of such young characters.