Judged by Jess • Find her on Goodreads
To start, I feel like I should tell all of you that in my head, I’ve been calling this the battle of the brothers.
It’s a mildly silly confession, mind you, because as you will see, very little of my decision has anything to do with the brothers themselves. But when I first read the descriptions and when I started reading the books, I immediately put both books down to being about sibling issues. And they are about that to some extent, but they’re also not about that, and the places where they diverge from each other is where they stand apart.
Drawing the Ocean is a book about moving on from grieving and a book about deciding what kind of person that you want to be. Sadie is sixteen, and though she’s four years removed from her twin brother’s death, she’s still dealing with it every single day. There’s her guilt and her mother’s overprotectiveness, and the fact that she can see and hear her brother next to her sometimes. The last thing, and her almost obsessive interest in art, left her branded as odd at her old school, and so when her family moves cross country, it’s treated as a chance for her to start over. To be normal.
And really, normalcy is what this book is about. Sadie works so hard to present that way, for her own benefit and for her family, and it actually works. She starts to make friends, to silently rebel in the way that so many teenagers do. She likes a boy, the “right” sort of boy, and they begin to date. There’s another boy, though, a boy that she first thinks is her dead brother and then realizes isn’t anything like her brother at all. Sadie is drawn to him, but being publicly friends with someone that everyone at the school calls Fryin’ Ryan isn’t in the cards when all you want in the world is to be normal.
This is where the lesson comes in. You see, the end of the book hinges on Sadie’s decision to buck the social order and take their friendship public, after Ryan has his car stolen and defaced by some of Sadie’s football player boyfriend’s friends.
And it’s a nice gesture. It’s a brave gesture. It’s certainly a gesture that the whole book is spent gearing itself up for.
But for me, it didn’t feel like a particularly true gesture. And if I think about it more, things not feeling true was maybe my biggest holdup with loving this book. I felt like the author told us a lot of things about how important art was to Sadie and how odd she behaved in her grief, but then never really followed through on showing either thing. Part of that was the concentrated campaign to be normal, sure, but I don’t know, I sort of don’t believe a character that was ostracized could flip a switch so easily and fall into the average All-American life, with only a couple of dead brother sightings as a marker of how strange she is.
By contrast, the protagonist of First & Then legitimately does have a strange, sprawling life inside her entirely mediocre existence. Devon is a high school senior who is trying to make herself outstanding enough that some college will admit her (and this is where I have to interject that it’s not that college admissions aren’t competitive, they are, but it wasn’t like Devon wanted to go to an Ivy. Even with mediocre grades and test scores, she could have found a college to admit her.) On the whole, her life is pretty average, but then her parents bring home her cousin to live with the family and she goes from an only child to a big sister overnight.
And that could have been the book. But instead, the book is really the story of Devon’s journey out of herself, with a side of not really knowing how full her life was to begin with. All of the people that she connects with over the course of the book (with the exception of Ezra) are people that were already in her life, she just needed a push to make herself see that there was more to her than her crush on her sort of terrible best friend.
Then there’s Ezra.
Ezra is kind of great, you guys. He’s exactly the right balance of wish fulfillment and still feeling like a real person who reacts badly to things sometimes and makes wrong choices, but is also going to show up to the hospital when you need him. I fully supported Devon’s interest in him and getting over Cas as a result.
I read some reviews of this one that suggested this was a messy book and I can’t really disagree with that. There are a lot of side characters whose stories never get fully explored, and who frankly, would have made more interesting books than Devon did. But that messiness felt real to me. After all, how many of us know the ins and outs of the lives of all the people we see every day? I know I don’t. Maybe admitting that makes me a terrible person, I’m not really sure. I do know that I can’t ding the book for that element, though, because ultimately, it made the book feel more real to me.
All of that being said, it’s time to choose between them and I still don’t feel like I have a solid choice made. I liked both books. I think that both of them did what they tried to do (though the people who did the marketing for First & Then should be fired, because way to over promise.) I think there’s solid stuff in both of them about being a teenager and how the choices that you make then, about the people that you let into your life, can shape who you’ll become. But in the end, I suppose I think that one of them did a slightly better job fulfilling the promise of what the blurb led me to believe that the book would be, and so I am choosing to advance First & Then to the next round of the YA/MG Book Battle.