Thursday, June 05, 2008

First Day Falls Flat

A lot of book reviewers talk about "sequelitis," and while I don't know its exact definition (I tried looking it up on dictionary.com - no dice), I think First Day by Allyson Braithwaite Condie suffers from it. If "sequelitis" means that a second or third or fourth or whatever book fails to live up to its predecessor(s), then the term fits here. I've mentioned that I don't generally enjoy LDS fiction, but I thought Yearbook was "a very decent effort" (you can see my full review here). Its sequel, First Day? Not so much.

Like Yearbook, this one is told from several different points of view, including those of Andrea and Ethan Beckett. Many of the characters from Condie's first novel don't have voices in this one, although they exist peripherally. The other narrators are actually Andrea's Seminary students and a co-teacher. As in the first book, all the characters have different issues with which they are dealing - from trying to decide which college to attend, to choosing between different grad school programs, to learning how to deal with challenging callings, to figuring out how to catch the eye (and heart) of a dream girl, they all have things weighing on their minds.

Andrea Beckett narrates most of the book, which makes me happy since I think hers is the most authentic character out of all those in Yearbook. The Andrea we meet in First Day lacks the razor edges she had in high school, but she still struggles to connect with others. An upperclassman at Cornell, she misses home (especially a certain RM), making life in New York just a bit lonely. When she's assigned to teach early morning Seminary with nice guy Joel Hammond, things perk up a little. Well, maybe more than a little. Andrea's been burned by love before, so she steels herself against getting to close to Joel. Teaching Seminary has her stomach in enough knots - the last thing she needs is another complication in her life. In the meantime, she's reconsidering her educational and career paths. Then, there's Joel, a Utah boy who's a little lost in New York. Meeting Andrea changes everything for him. The only question is - how in the world is he going to crack the Ice Queen's rock-hard facade? While the college students deal with their problems, the high schoolers have their own troubles - Caterina Giovanni can't decide whether to attend BYU-Idaho or a local school. She's also dealing with the infuriating Steve Ward who would rather sleep through class than pull his weight as co-president. Ethan Beckett also makes a few cameos. A missionary in Brazil, he's struggling to learn Portugese, put up with difficult companions, and keep thoughts of Mikey Choi on the backburner. In the course of the novel, all characters will have to face their problems - with a little help from their friends, families and the Lord, of course. It will take faith, prayer and tenacity to handle the many beginnings and endings that punctuate the characters' lives.

There's plenty of material here, but First Day just fell flat for me. I think all of the narrators are likeable, but not that interesting. Most lacked personality and originality. I kept thinking of that old Writing 101 test - if all of the characters are talking at the same time, can you pick out the individuals without identifying tags? In this case, the answer is no - they all sound the same. Even Andrea, who I found so realistic in Yearbook, loses some of her oomph in this book. It's a terrible thing to say, but I think the more righteous Andrea is, the less impactful she becomes. The other big problem with First Day is that it lacks plot - the stories just kind of meander without any real direction. I think this is why I picked the book up and put it down a couple of times - it's just sort of ... boring. It's a nice story, don't get me wrong, I just didn't find it very exciting.

I did like that Condie narrowed down the number of narrators in First Day - it made the story more intimate for me. I also thought she kept things realistic (if ultimately predictable) - prayers don't get answered without some work, the inactive student remains reluctant, Andrea doesn't impress everyone, and Ethan finds that he's not the stellar missionary he thought he was. The book also sends nice, uplifting messages that will resound with anyone who's struggling to make decisions about their future. Finally, I have to say I love the cover on this one - it's simple and a little mysterious.

Overall, First Day makes for a nice, predictable read. It's positive, uplifting and not overly saccharine. I just wanted something more - deeper character development, more originality and a few twists and turns to keep the story interesting. Let's hope the "sequelitis" runs its course before Reunion, the last book in the series, hits the shelves.

Grade: C

(Book image from Amazon)

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