The Summer of Firsts and Lasts
by Terra Elan McVoy
Released on: May 3rd, 2011
Published by: Simon Pulse
Rating: 2 stars
Word rating: I wanted to care ... but didn't.
Reviewed by: Ellis
Three sisters. One life-changing summer.
Calla loves summer because summer means Duncan. They've been best friends for years, but Calla has never worked up the nerve to tell him how she really feels. This summer, the summer before college, is Calla's last chance.
Violet isn't much of a rule breaker in real life. But this isn't real life, this is summer, and Violet is determined to make the most of it. Besides, a little sneaking out never hurt anyone. And sneaking out with James is 100% worth the risk...even though James is completely off-limits.
Daisy has never been the sister that boys notice, but when sparks fly with Joel at the first bonfire of summer, it seems so easy and right. So why is being his girlfriend so complicated?
I need to explain my rating here. The Summer of First and Lasts is by no means a bad book. There are many messages and themes I actually very much approve of. The problem is, I just didn't care that much for the story itself. It took a good 150 pages for it to get going in the first place, and by that time, it was too late for me to form a serious attachment to any of the characters. And when it comes to summery contemporaries, I read for connections and ships, neither of which happened with this book. A few times even, I found myself thinking I should just keep reading so I could get it over with and be able to start a new book.
The first problem for me was that it took almost a third of the novel before I could really distinguish the three sisters from each other. They're very similar in voice, to the point that I was under the impression that I was reading one of Violet's chapters and then suddenly realised Calla was actually the one speaking. Mind you, these chapters all carry the name of the current protagonist as their title, so that was an especially awkward realisation. It could be that this was a personal problem, though. From the beginning, Violet's story line, while probably the most formulaic and/or expected of the three, was the one that interested me the most. I think I might have enjoyed the story more if it had been focalised through Violet alone.
One thing that definitely disappointed me was the sister relationship. It's not even this relationship itself, because there are definitely acts of loyalty and appreciation here, but the fact that it didn't affect or impress me at all. Normally, sibling relationships are my kryptonite. I get more feels from wonderful family and friends dynamics than from most romantic ships. Sadly, that was not the case here. I think part of the problem is that so much of it is told. We get a lot of memories and inside jokes, but most of them are communicated through telling. While it's understandable because every sister has her own schedule and responsibilities, I wish they'd spent a little more time together at camp itself. They were so often off doing their own thing that I never really felt the connection between them.
Speaking of telling, the language in itself also threw me off a little. It's a mix of two things. Either McVoy gets very poetic with her language, or she writes in very realistic terms, to the point of (overly) simplistic. This mix didn't quite work for me and I think that's another thing that alienated me from the actual story. Something that absolutely confused me was the use of the word "retarded. At first, Daisy uses it between quote marks when quoting Violet, which implies she doesn't agree with the use of the word in itself. Later, however, she uses it herself, merely to indicate she thinks something is stupid. Yah, no. Even if we're acting under the "but realism" explanation here, which I don't like very much to be honest, using it so freely and apparently unproblematically is, in fact, really problematic.
However, there are things about The Summer of Firsts and Lasts that really impressed me. For starters, there's Daisy's storyline, which deals with bullying. Daisy turns out to be this incredibly gifted athlete and that makes some of her former friends and current bunkmates jealous. As a result, she starts to underperform because she doesn't want to attract any (unwanted) attention to herself. This is something I can personally relate to and I thought it was done very well. I also thought the whole "are they friends heading for more?" storyline between Calla and Duncan was resolved very well and realistically. This was one of the few moments I actually did feel something, even though I'd seen it coming from pages away.
The thing that probably impressed me most was how the theme of female sexuality was handled. This was mostly present in Violet's storyline, which partly focuses on a forbidden romance between her and a counsellor. One thing this book definitely doesn't shy away from is realism. Even though the first sex scene between Violet and James isn't super graphic, though this is one of the spots where McVoy's language actually worked in the story's favour, there are many details that you unfortunately don't find all that often in YA romances. The sex is awkward and even embarrassing at points (think: queefing and the like), but in spite of that both parties still enjoy it. I think it's important that this is discussed in YA literature, and it should happen more often.
Add to that the fact that fully informed consent is also addressed as a big deal, which it is, and I was more or less tempted to add an extra star, just for how teenage sex was handled. Unfortunately, while I can objectively say that this novel brings up some important issues and handles them well, the fact remains that I cared very little for the story overall. I would still recommend it for people who'd like some substance with their summer contemps, but if you're merely in it for the swoons and ships, this might not exactly float your boat.