What makes 17 First Kisses really stand out is the attitude towards romance and sex. It’s a very sex positive novel, one that maintains a person needs to have a lot of experiences before settling down. With most YA fiction ending with a couple in an HEA, 17 First Kisses is a breath of fresh air. There’s a ship of sorts, but, though most of the book deals with romantic drama and relationships, it’s not about romance. Allen’s debut really does run through all the boys that the heroine, Claire, has kissed, and ends on the suggestion that many more boys will be kissed before she’s done. THIS is real life for most people, and I love that aspect so, so much.
Allen tackles slut-shaming head on, in a way that will either work for readers or it won’t. It worked for me almost entirely. There’s frank discussion of the gender bias in calling behavior slutty, which I love. Claire has a bad reputation, despite the fact that she’s a virgin. The high school rumor mill is a big part of 17 First Kisses. I like, too, Claire’s consideration on when she wants to have sex. She takes time and considers what’s right for her. The one part that lost me a bit was when Claire wrote on someone else’s car, calling them a slut for hooking up with her boyfriend, even though the girl didn’t cheat on her. The overall message, though, is one of positivity, so I’m able to overlook that as the terminology of high school.
The side plot on Claire’s family is immensely touching. Her mother and father have both disappeared in their grief, in response to a family tragedy. Claire’s mother almost never leaves her bed, hiding within a pile of blankets. The father works long hours and sleeps on the couch or in the study. Neither of them can deal and Claire’s stuck taking care of herself and her younger sister, Libby. Of course, she’s a teen, so it’s also an opportunity to get away with things. That said, Claire very much wants her parents back and works to that end. This plot is very understated and thoughtful.
The friendship drama is where I have some niggling feelings of disappointment. I do really love the relationship between Amberly and Claire, the way Claire is realizing she’s taken Amberly for granted. Claire’s relationship with Megan is more problematic. Both are very supportive of one another when the chips are down and it’s great that Claire doesn’t envy Megan her popularity. However, the two are so terrible to each other over boys and never really deal with that in a healthy way. I do think it’s realistic for high school, but it’s one of those little things that keeps me from a full five star rating. Then there’s the bigger issue, which is Claire’s friendship with Sam. They’ve been friends basically all of their lives and supposedly talk often enough that he comments on how weird it is to not talk every single day, but he’s hardly in the book. It feels like Sam should be much more present in her life than he actually is in the novel.
Finally, I have extra affection for 17 First Kisses for two personal reasons. 1) This book reminds me of She’s the Man. Claire’s a total badass at soccer and, when she gives a boy a bloody nose by accident during a game, she gives him a tampon to soak up the blood. Much laughing commenced from me. 2) Allen’s from Atlanta and the book is set near to me. While Claire and her friends live outside of the city, likely in a place of southern accents (suggested certainly by Claire calling her mother Mama), there are references to places that I know, like the sumptuous bathrooms of The Fox Theater. Atlanta doesn’t come up too often in books and I loved seeing my hometown.
The Final Verdict:
While not an entirely perfect read for me, 17 First Kisses still impressed me mightily and I recommend it to all contemporary YA lovers. It’s thought-provoking, healthy of attitude, and full of believable characters. I will read whatever Allen writes next, without a doubt.