3 out of 4 stars
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Agnes Anne O’Neil is at the end of her ropes. She’s a 28-year-old virgin living with her devoutly Catholic, proudly Irish parents in a house filled with images of the BVM (Blessed Virgin Mary)—but that’s the least of her worries. After all, reclusive Agnes Anne has a Special Devotion to the Blessed Mother, and a lingering teenage trauma has impaired her ability to communicate with people. But when you know the essentials of a snail’s diet and could name the patron saint of hairdressers, even shy, stuttering Agnes Anne knows it’s high time to get a life.
Armed with a newly-obtained real estate license, a new hairdo, a new name (just Anne), and possibly a new boyfriend in Jewish accountant, Sheldon Goldberg, Anne is ready to conquer the world. But with a dad who keeps a tally of the family’s church attendance, a mom who recreates Biblical scenes using pancake batter, and a sleazy brother-in-law who’s obsessed with her virginity, will Anne ever get a break? Add in a sudden death that may have been orchestrated by Anne’s tormentor, Bruno Stark, and she’s done for. Oh boy! Hail Mary, full of Grace, please don’t let Agnes Anne O’Neil screw up.
Irish comedy, soap-operatic drama, and a dash of mystery come together in Tory Hartmann’s romp of a novel, First Friday: How Virginity Almost Killed Me. Through the eyes of an endearingly awkward heroine, readers are treated to a slew of outrageous scenarios that include a mollusk-induced kitchen accident, a medical-themed case of mistaken identity, and a dry ice fiasco during a funeral. Beleaguered by sexual harassment, religious dogma, and the mad antics of her eccentric family, Anne is the Cinderella of her own fairytale and the Bridget Jones of her own rom-com. She’s also the hapless victim in her own horror movie, the one who goes out of her way to do the opposite of what’s logical and safe. I was compelled to root for Anne from the beginning, but as the story got darker (and be warned that it will), I couldn’t help but roll my eyes at the dubious decisions she makes.
Hartmann certainly nailed the “Irish” part of this mish-mash of genres, injecting a healthy amount of Irish references and brogues into the dialogues. The “comedy” aspects, from the subtle to the slapstick, had me in stitches (e.g., Anne’s brothers are called Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John). “Drama” came in extremes—either an outburst of histrionics or a quiet moment of reflection and prayer to the BVM—which were mostly touching. The “mystery,” however, wasn’t so much a mystery as a plot vehicle for Anne to have her grand moment of vindication. Still, given everything Anne had gone through, it was a splendid, cathartic moment for both the character and the reader.
First Friday initially came across as a light, funny read, but the gravity of the themes soon cast an ominous shadow over everything. Harassment, stalking, and the pervasive threat of rape are nothing to laugh at, after all. Hartmann, however, does a fine job of harnessing the sense of frustration and danger that Anne feels and foisting them upon the reader. The writing is evocative, capturing the tone, mood, and personality of our heroine. Readers will relate to her quest for independence, recognition, and love, as well as the book’s broader themes of family, women empowerment, overcoming trauma, having faith, and of course, accepting oneself.
I rate First Friday 3 out of 4 stars. It was a fun, rollicking ride while it lasted, and despite a few bumps and twists in the road that I wasn’t really a fan of, it was still a good, solid read. The book also has a professional feel to it, although I did notice a handful of errors in punctuation, word usage, and spelling. These, however, did little to detract from the reading experience, making First Friday a highly recommended read for all fans of comedy and family dramas.
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