Judged by Melissa • Find her on Goodreads
I was glad to get this pair for my bracket. I loved both of these books and hoped they would end up facing off against each other, because they have some interesting similarities while still being completely different. What struck me, though, was that both books are about aimless girls—two young women who for different reasons are disengaged with life. In both cases, this aimlessness made it hard for me to connect with the protagonists, but the ways they grow out of it—grow into caring about others–ultimately made them two of my favorite characters in the entire battle.
Our first aimless girl is Devon Tennyson of First & Then, who describes herself as “stunningly average.” As the book opens, she’s so resistant to the idea of doing anything that would get her into college that at first I thought she was meant to be a rebellious teen, but no, she just doesn’t have any motivation. And I found that extremely off-putting.
Devon is so committed to the notion of being average that she never voluntarily takes action to become something else. She’s driven to become a staff photographer because college is something her parents want for her; she comes to know Ezra, the stolid, standoffish (she thinks) star football player because he takes an interest in her cousin Foster; she takes a trip to the only school she’s remotely interested in because her counselor arranges it.
And yet somewhere in the middle of this, she became interesting. Possibly it’s the moment when she’s at Reeding, the college whose postcard intrigued her, and discovers that going to school there is something she wants. Or maybe it’s her growing attachment to her goofy cousin, who turns out to have a gift for kicking a football. I’m not convinced by the remarks someone makes that Devon is “easy to talk to” or that people enjoy talking to her, because we never see it, but I am convinced that she turns into someone who does care about other people and, in turn, is worth caring about.
Then there’s Taylor Markham of Jellicoe Road. Unlike Devon, Taylor’s disconnect from everyone around her arises from a deep desire not to rely on or be relied on. Too much has happened to Taylor, specifically her abandonment by her mother and the desertion of Cadet Jonah Griggs when she tried to find her mother, to allow her to trust easily. When her friend and mentor Hannah disappears as well, Taylor retreats from her new responsibilities as leader of her school. That drove me crazy.
Taylor accepts the role not because she wants to be in charge, but because she hates the idea of being under anyone else’s control—and proceeds to screw up repeatedly because every time things get tough, she retreats to Hannah’s empty house. I hate it when people agree to do something and then ignore their responsibilities. It was probably most of a hundred pages before I started caring about Taylor. She has a lot further to go than Devon does.
And then I really cared about her. Once she starts letting people in, she’s engaging, tough, and loyal. She does have the ability to lead, and demonstrates it repeatedly, from brokering a peace between the three factions of school, Townies, and Cadets to finally tracking down her mother. I was impressed by Taylor’s strength and determination as well as her weaknesses—ultimately, by her humanity.
While Jellicoe Road’s structure is brilliant, First & Then has a less-obvious frame that’s still very good. First & Then is not a retelling of Pride and Prejudice, thank heaven, because I’m not sure Emma Mills is up to that challenge. What it is is informed by Pride and Prejudice, taking just enough elements of that book to make exploring them interesting.
Devon is definitely prejudiced about almost everyone she meets, starting with the “prostitots” in her freshman gym class, whom she describes in painfully cruel detail. I had to wonder why there weren’t any girls like Devon had been as a freshman, all pimples and braces and awkwardness. And, of course, she’s prejudiced against Ezra, partly because of his behavior to her in their first meeting in that same gym class, but also because of the attitude her friend Cas, a fellow football player, has about him: All-American Bowl team, star player, the guy who always makes the touchdowns. Cas is jealous, and Devon, loyal to him because of her unrequited crush, lets that attitude influence her.
Ezra doesn’t make a great Mr. Darcy, and again I say, Good. He’s much better as he is, someone awful at making conversation, incredibly intense, and loyal to his friends. Jordan, the super-charming offensive back and the “coolest guy in school” sees a different side of Ezra, and it’s through him that Devon first begins to understand that maybe she’s being a little hard on Ezra. That, and his treatment of her cousin Foster.
So First & Then worked for me, but the structure of Jellicoe Road, with its intertwining stories, really won me over. I like having a challenge when I read, and Hannah’s “novel,” told out of sequence, was wonderfully challenging. Despite having trouble remembering which of the five characters was which to start, I found myself looking forward to the narrative intervals to see if I could puzzle out what happened. As a conceit, it’s a little too perfect—coincidentally the order in which Taylor reads the story reveals the truth in exactly the right order to keep her (and the reader) guessing, but the story itself is so compelling I was willing to give it a pass.
What also worked for me is how that narrative ended up bringing the three factions together and undoing some of the misunderstandings that had arisen with time. At the beginning, it doesn’t look as if Taylor and her people can ever be friends with the Townies, headed by Chaz Santangelo, and the Cadets, led by Jonah Griggs (with whom Taylor has a history). And somehow they manage to stumble toward an accord that’s managed by the fact that both Griggs and Santangelo are essentially nice guys who have to work really hard at being jerks.
This is ultimately a story about restoration: restoring Taylor’s faith in others, restoring her relationship with her mother, restoring the original understanding between the three factions. It also has a lot to say about how most people are essentially good. One of my favorite scenes is a very tense meeting between the three faction leaders and their seconds, where they can’t maintain the tension because the seconds are all musicians and drift away into an argument about amplifiers.
The secondary characters in both novels are fantastic. First & Then may even go overboard with how many there are and how much story each of them has behind them, from super-popular and kind Jordan to the overachieving Rachel to perfect and sweet Lindsay to mysterious Emir and…I could go on. The fact that all of these amazing people are part of the background is, I think, a strength of the novel, because it reinforces Devon’s character as someone who only sees people on the surface. Part of the novel’s journey is Devon learning to be less prejudiced, whether it’s realizing that one of the prostitots is seriously brilliant or discovering that Lindsay really is as good and kind a person as she seems, even if she is capable of doing mean, selfish things—or maybe because of it.
But it’s Foster who really dominates the novel. He’s possibly my favorite character in this story. He’s awkward and unfashionable, but he’s not a bully magnet and he has unsuspected depth. I’m not sure his path to football stardom is realistic, mainly because I don’t know much about high school football, but it feels genuine that a team would want a kicker with his talent on varsity no matter his age. And his friendship with Ezra is truly charming, even before we find out why it started. Foster is never put off by Devon’s bad attitude toward him, is never conscious of how nerdy he is, and I love that he makes friends in all social classes, from the freshman girls to the jocks on the football team to his science club pals.
Jellicoe Road has just as many powerful secondary characters, but where in First & Then Devon never truly gets to know them, in Jellicoe Road everything’s ultimately tied to Taylor’s story. This is not a weakness of First & Then because I think in that book the point is, as I said, Devon’s character being reinforced. Exactly the same thing happens in Jellicoe Road, but Taylor isn’t like Devon and her character is revealed by her allowing others to rely on her and be relied on in turn. And it’s not just her House members like Jessa and Raffaela or anyone else in school, such as Ben or even the detestable Richard; Santangelo and Griggs, who originally seem like typical bullies, turn out to be some of the best friends she could ask for.
Griggs fascinated me, and not just because he’s the love interest. He’s got as tragic a history as Taylor and is broken in his own way, and I love that their story begins long before the book does. He’s violent and mean, but it’s clear early on that this is something he puts on for show, a way of protecting himself. He’s conscious, as I think most children in his position are, of how much of him is like his abusive father, and the contrast between his more brutal behaviors and his tenderness toward Taylor makes him compelling. I found him as fascinating in his own way as I did Foster.
But it’s the romance that gets me, every time, and in both books we have some beautiful ones. Devon begins the book in love with Cas, who doesn’t care for her as anything but a friend. It was painful watching Devon dance around trying to get Cas to notice her. (Until the literal homecoming dance, where she learns Cas knows how she feels about him and has been trying to spare her feelings, pitying her all the time she thought they were good friends. That was beautifully tragic.) As a result, she doesn’t realize she’s falling in love with Ezra until she can’t ignore it any longer.
It’s a long, slow, satisfying romance, with a satisfying ending: Ezra reading Jane Austen because he thought that would give them something to talk about. Ezra saying he wanted to show Devon he could be decent to Foster, because he really just wanted Devon to like him, and that’s how it all started. And Devon’s reaction to that: “It was said in such a guileless manner, like one of those first-grade notes, DO YOU LIKE ME, CHECK YES OR NO.” That just killed me with its sweetness. I really enjoyed reading this the second time, being able to see what was behind Ezra’s actions even if Devon couldn’t. I had trouble warming up to Devon, but Ezra was easy to love.
As for Taylor and Griggs, it’s clear early on that he cares for her, but their relationship isn’t so much romantic (though it’s that too) as based on mutual need. The third story in this book, after the primary plot and Hannah’s story, is the truth about what happened when the two of them ran away—an episode that linked them both so it was inevitable they would ultimately come together. And yet that mutual need is as compelling a romance as I could want. The moment that brought them together, for me, wasn’t their first kiss or spending the night together, but the point where Griggs tells Taylor why he was on the train platform that day. Romance comes later—though Taylor has to point out to Griggs that he’s been romantic—and it’s incredibly satisfying. I can easily see the two of them lasting as a couple because of the depth of their connection.
I found a lot to love in each of these books, and choosing between them was harder than I’d thought when I was first handed this pairing. I loved both books for their craft, for their depth of characterization, and for some wonderful romances. But in the end, First & Then was a sweet story, but Jellicoe Road had a power that stayed with me long after I finished reading. So I’m choosing Jellicoe Road to advance to the next round.