So I was fortunate enough to be given an advance copy of First Time, a new sexy romance novel by Abigail Barnette (the pseudonym of the equally groovy Jenny Trout) to review here, and honestly? It couldn’t have come at a better time; this book is a breath of fresh air after what I’ve been reading for review here lately.
In many ways, First Time is something of a response to Fifty Shades; though it isn’t a kink book itself- though other works in Barnette’s name respond to that particular aspect of Fifty more explicitly- it is a romance novel set over a relatively short period of time, and an equally rapid burgeoning relationship, much like Fifty was. It’s also a dual perspective narrative set over two books (released simultaneously) from the points of view of both the lead characters; I’ll be reviewing Ian’s Story, the First Time story told from the perspective of its male lead, but I’ll certainly be picking up Penny’s Story when it is released for real on August 4th.
First Time is the story of Ian Pratchett, a man in his fifties, fresh from a divorce that still smarts, and his ensuing relationship with Penny Parker, a woman in her twenties that he meets on a blind date. Though they are in very different places in life, both want to start a family of their own, and as the two of them bond, Ian begins to suspect that he may have found the person to fulfill that life goal with.
To say any more would be to spoil the fun, since the relationship is the major content in a romance story, but if I had to describe First Time in a word, that word would be human. It’s a very human book, telling the story of a relationship that feels authentic and charming, with characters I actually enjoyed getting to know. It is- and I hesitate to continue bringing this up since I know that Jenny Trout dislikes it as much as I do- the polar opposite of Grey, and I can’t stress enough how nice that is to have.
So much of this story is blindingly positive representation; Barnette has knocked it out of the park in her writing on sex positivity, men, women, relationships, consent, and a series of other important concepts that, too often, our entertainment still gets so wrong. What I’ve reviewed so far on this blog has been little more than a laundry list of relationship mistakes, but this is the first review I’ve done of a work that only ever gets those things right, modelling a functional, healthy relationship devoid of the problematic gender or sex statements that dominate popular culture.
At so many points while reading First Time I stopped and nodded my head in approval, there’s so many small, incidental details between the central couple here that I just love: I love that Ian is sex positive without being sex addicted, or less than respectful of Penny. I love that Penny wants to take things slow, but this isn’t portrayed as a negative, nor is Ian portrayed as a slavering dog waiting to jump into her pants. I love that Barnette understands that “not having sex” doesn’t mean “not being sexual.” I love that Penny stops to ask Ian’s permission to do things to him during their first sexual encounter. I love the body positivity, the sex positivity, and the emotional honesty with which these characters conduct themselves. Boundaries are respected, consent is given, kink is mentioned but never engaged with and never treated as a negative because of that… every step of the way, the protagonists here act like mature, open people, and their growing bond is so much more enjoyable and engaging because of the responsible way they handle it.
Honestly, it’s such a relief to see that a person can write a book like this and still be a successful author, because after seeing what rises to the tops of the bestseller lists I was becoming more and more convinced that successful erotica needs to be written in accordance with some arcane, inhuman set of rules about relationships and sex that don’t match anything I know about how those work. To see that someone can write about actual humans and not weird aliens with strange expectations of others, beeping and booping their way through a pantomime of Hu-man courtship is just good, a relief to aspiring writers in this genre like me.
The pleasant characters and wonderful representations are bolstered by some damn solid writing; it’s not perfect, and at times feels like it’s sketching the characters too lightly, but it flows well and has a nice sense of personality to it. I haven’t read Penny’s Story yet, so it could be that this is just the way the books are written, but one gets a good idea of Ian’s character through his narration; it has a voice that’s humorously grumpy and cynical in places, yet has a strong backbone of positivity, an authentic feeling of enjoyment at the relationship that unfolds that carries one along. It’s easy to care about the protagonist, and much of that is down to the casual ease with which Barnette writes him.
It all proceeds at a good clip, rarely overstaying its welcome in any given scene or set piece, and it’s really nice to read a writer with a good grasp of rhythm and tone; after slogging through Grey and its painstakingly ruined writing, prose by someone who knows what they’re doing is almost a revelation. It works really well for the most part, excelling at humor and scenes where the characters fight- which are all presented in such a true to life fashion that it’s almost uncomfortable to watch these people bicker, at times- though it does falter during scenes that are supposed to be sad. Conceptually, Barnette knows what she’s doing, the actual sad moments are solid ideas, they’re just executed a tad too quickly for my taste, in language that doesn’t dig in its gut punch quite enough. A little more oomph, another draft or two, and those scenes could have been masterful (you’ll know them when you read them); as they stand, they’re merely adequate denouements to a couple of ongoing plot threads. They never felt unnecessary, just not living up to their potential, I suppose.
Look, ultimately what we have here is a very entertaining read by an author that clearly knows her genre well and has an interest in promoting some exceptional relationship practices too. Yes, there are some niggles that spoil some of the fun- in particular I think the ending felt slightly rushed and could have used maybe two or three more scenes to it- but I have a really hard time criticizing this one, because it’s just too damn pleasant otherwise. It’s a book that’ll make you smile, it’s super cute at times, real at others, and engaging throughout. I’d be remiss if I didn’t recommend it wholeheartedly. First Time will be released on August 4th through Amazon, and at that price, I can’t think of a single reason not to pick it up.
Also? It has the most references to octopi that I’ve ever seen in a romance novel. That should be enough of a selling point on its own.