Paperback, 319 pages.
Release date: June 17th 2014.
Rating: 3 out of 5.
Reviewed by: Arianne.
No matter how many boys Claire kisses, she can’t seem to find a decent boyfriend. Someone who wouldn’t rather date her gorgeous best friend, Megan. Someone who won’t freak out when he learns about the tragedy her family still hasn’t recovered from. Someone whose kisses can carry her away from her backwoods town for one fleeting moment.
Until Claire meets Luke.
But Megan is falling for Luke, too, and if there’s one thing Claire knows for sure, it’s that Megan’s pretty much irresistible.
With true love and best friendship on the line, Claire suddenly has everything to lose. And what she learns—about her crush, her friends, and most of all herself—makes the choices even harder.
In her moving debut, Rachael Allen brilliantly captures the complexities of friendship, the struggles of self-discovery, and the difficulties of trying to find love in high school. Fans of Sarah Ockler, Susane Colasanti, and Stephanie Perkins will fall head over heels for this addictive, heartfelt, and often hilarious modern love story.
From the moment I first heard about this book, I loved its premise. It’s reminiscent of 10 Things We Did (And Probably Shouldn’t Have) or To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before: it just sings contemporary romance. And it’s more than just story of a girl searching for the perfect first kiss. It’s a story about friendship and loyalty. It’s a story about family and feuds. It’s a story about identity and what it means to show the world a side of yourself you’re not particularly proud of. It’s about finding something real under all the false pretences.
All Claire - or CJ as she's known - wants is a guy she can rely on. Someone she can trust – not just with herself, but someone she can trust with her family secrets, and someone she can trust not to ditch her for her best friend Megan. When she meets Luke, she thinks maybe he could be the one; but this is YA, and nothing’s ever that easy.
17 First Kisses is about friendship. It’s also about boys, and we’ll get to that later, but the one theme that runs consistently through its pages is how tough high school friendships can be. Friendships are hard work when you’re all headed in different directions and struggling not to slide down the slippery slope of catty selfishness.
Unfortunately, the characters within these friendships weren’t always to my taste. As a narrator, Claire doesn’t seem like the kind of girl many readers are going to truly identify with. She’s vain, popular, she constantly gives in to peer pressure, and her main concern through most of the book is trying to find a good-looking guy to take her to the mall and whisk her away from her backwater town. Sure, she’s opinionated, but she can also be incredibly passive and her narrative style errs on the irritating side more than once. I may just be unused to the rich, claustrophobic tone through which Claire's world is defined, but reading this book made me really grateful for the sharp, biting, realistic voices we’re lucky enough to find in UKYA and other related genres. It’s as if Claire’s story is covered in bubble wrap, and it just makes you want to puncture that perfect little world of hers with some stark reality from time to time.
One of the only instances where the harshness of life infects Claire’s narrow outlook is the revelation that her mother is suffering from, and battling with, severe depression. Allen deals with this subplot with tact and wisdom – if only she could have been a little less heavy-handed with her dialogue. Specific elements of writing style never usually bother me, but with 17 First Kisses, I couldn't help but be irritated by certain aspects of the storytelling. The dialogue feels forced from the beginning, while interval chapters take you back to each of Claire’s seventeen ‘first’ kisses; this structure is certainly unique, if you’re a natural cynic, you’re probably better off using up your suspension of disbelief quota on the next episode of Game of Thrones.
That said, I loved that Claire was a soccer fan – a stellar characterisation choice on the author’s part, and so memorable. I loved that Claire’s best friend, Megan, eventually found a way to pursue her own ambitions despite her parents’ misgivings. Amberly, too, made me smile. If you’re looking for a book with a wide cohort of female leads, you’ve found one in this debut - unfortunately, these traits signal the end of this book's portion of character development. I doubt I'll be recommending any of the main characters for Role Model of the Year awards anytime soon. They're shallow, selfish, and they hide any semblance of intellect beneath dull conversations about boys, boys and, you guessed it, more boys. It's as if they've been kept under a rock all this time; they're flat and have outdated mannerisms as well as ideals. These characters, Claire included, are not realistic. They are not admirable. They are not the kind of heroines we need in modern YA.
The problems don't end there, either. This book centres around the idea that the main characters have somehow single-handedly managed to kiss, date, love and hate every eligible bachelor in their entire town within the space of a few high school years, and without any other substantive plots to back it up, it lacks action and drive. Claire and Megan completely lose their identities for the sake of popularity; their friendship suffers as it becomes apparent that they have little in common except similar taste in men and a mutual desire to punish the other for perceived misdeeds.
Thankfully, there is one person who makes up for all of this, and that character is Sam. Sweet, always-there, always-waiting Sam. My heart broke for him. I can guarantee that in the race to win the reader’s affections, Sam will beat Luke every time. He was the reason I kept reading. I needed to know where the ending of his story would be, and I have to say, the way it was handled by Rachael Allen was absolutely fantastic.
In short: I really wanted to like 17 First Kisses, but sadly it let me down. YA is filled with brilliant, sharp, challenging reads, but this book isn't one of them. It features a stifling setting and characters who are difficult to relate to from the start; it's got a good story but it doesn't offer the reader anything we haven't seen before. For readers patient and forgiving enough to stick with it, there is a huge payoff towards the end that makes it more worthwhile, but ultimately, it just doesn't live up to the high standards currently being set on the YA shelf.