Alex and Seth have been best friends since childhood, when she rescued him from bullies. Now they’re older and in college and Alex’s feelings for Seth have changed. She’s gone from loving him to being in love and would even settle for being a part of his active rotation of dates, but they’re all a front and she knows it. He’s gay and there’s no way he’ll love her the way she wants, as much as she wishes for it.
Seth is one of those pretty golden boys who girls flock to and other guys can have whole conversations with just by way of fist bumps and jock talk over beer. Alex has been floating in his orbit, content to be the one he tells his secrets to, even if it means she’s also relegated to the role of his tagalong, designated driver and wallflower. Seth has developed a crush on a football player and it’s dangerous – coming out would be the end of the world for him, so he grabs yet another vapid cheerleader to date, leading Alex to start pushing the bounds of their friendship.
I Loved You First is a pretty timeless story at its heart: girl loves boy, boy doesn’t return her feelings, girl sets out to find herself. Jacobs does a fine job adding in contemporary themes, although I’m worried about the exclusion of some things (more on that later).
It’s never shown why Alex is so dependent on Seth, how it happened, if he encouraged it or what. She’s generally deferential to him, and I had mixed feelings about whether I should hold it against him or not. Seth’s crush for the football player is revealed at a fraternity party and after he’s beaten up, his relationship with Alex changes drastically. He really starts treating her awfully, hot and cold, but by then, I pitied him (this is also the “more on that later”).
Alex was frustrating, irritating, confusing and I wanted to give her a hug most of the time, at least when I didn’t want to elbow her in the side. Her narrative voice repeated things that bothered me sometimes and I’m not sure if it was meant to tell me that it was something she obsessed about or what. She thought frequently about heights (hers and other people’s) and the size and food consumption of the football player that she revenge-dated. I liked that she was self-aware of how much she was living in Seth’s shadow even as she kept stepping back in it and that she’d force herself to move out again even if it was doing something not particularly bright. Even when Seth didn’t want her as his friend, she stood by him, even when it could have hurt her own reputation and lost her new friends which she was brave enough to go make on her own. On the other hand, I think she let him down big time with what she didn’t do for him. Which leads me to the “more on that later.”
For the obvious reasons when a professional hears someone stating that they’re going to commit suicide, they’re bound to do something. Alex is no professional, Seth obviously didn’t want anything done and I don’t want to spoil things – that’s not what I’m trying to do. But I didn’t like the message that what could have been a very serious suicide attempt was averted and Seth’s best friend did nothing. Risking my very best friendship, I would have done something. Forced him to call a professional, stood over him while he called a hotline, hauled his ass down to the campus health center in the morning to get him to talk to someone, called his parents if it came down to it. I’d love my friend enough to risk losing it all to save him. That, combined with Seth’s ultimate decision at the end just felt a little safe to me. The story was good and the characters were strong enough to take the hard road and maybe a rougher ending, I thought.
Who knew, me not demanding a hearts and flowers ending!?
None of the characters in the story were painted in black and white, not even the homophobic football players who were meant to be pitied. In the end, I was sad for many of the characters: the bigoted bullies, Seth for having had to live in shame and fear when it wasn’t necessary and Alex for having lost too much of herself in him for too long. There was also happiness – Alex had a wonderful new friend and saw that there was an Alex beyond Seth. It seemed a little melancholic though because of the way it got there.
I couldn’t stop reading once I started, having to follow all of these flawed, compelling people on their journey.