On the surface, there’s a lot in Alexandra Sirowy’s First We Were IV that comes across as a high-school version of The Secret History—albeit more streamlined and narrower in its focus—which is what originally attracted me to the book. Subtract the Classical Greek bacchanalia and air of intellectualism; add in various occult-inspired rituals and senior year drama. Yet the thematic differences between the two novels are more significant than their narrative similarities, even if some of the elements are very alike: a critical focus on class divides, a central murder, a frame narrative.
But The Secret History isn’t really so much about friendship as it is about the dangers of obligation and ego; witness Richard’s consistent and continual alienation from the people he’s been bound to through Bunny’s murder. Notably, it is the friendship itself in First We Were IV among Izzie, Graham, Vivian, and Harry that leads to the incredibly bloody and traumatic consequences, which are spelled out in the very first chapter. It’s not a spoiler: one of them dies—horribly, and the others are in some way to blame; the rest of the story is spent catching up to that moment to find out which friend doesn’t make it until the end, and how it ever got this out of hand. And out of hand it certainly gets: what starts off as a prank-playing secret society among four lifelong friends grows and festers, driving wedges among the friends it was meant to unite forever. Once the four decide on the Order’s ultimate goal—punishing the town for its original sin: the murder of an unknown girl, swept under the rug over a decade prior—it’s a fairly straightforward story of escalation and escalation’s bloody consequences.
First We Were IV’s strongest aspect is perhaps the way it plays with the idea of Izzie as a unreliable narrator, which is where the intermittent video transcripts, while a bit too on the nose, make the novel more intriguing than it would be otherwise. Because Izzie is telling the story of this fateful senior year after the fact, she’s free to manipulate how she recalls what happened, allowing her to come off as more neutral and practical than the fanciful Vivian or volatile Graham. Yet in the video diaries she and her friends make over the course of the Order’s existence, where we read verbatim transcripts of her plans and thoughts on basically creating a cult, she’s revealed to be just as devious and secretive as Graham and Vivian, whom Izzie grows to view with suspicion for—yep—being unforthcoming and lying by omission. The lack of specificity about how Izzie is telling this story, though, makes the video transcripts’ placement a bit confusing. At the beginning of the story, it seemed like the first-person narrative was going to turn out to be Izzie telling the whole story in the police station following the death of one of her friends, which would make having the video transcripts interspersed with Izzie’s recollections serve to give us—and the police—a fuller picture of what happened. Yet it eventually becomes evident towards the end of the novel that Izzie is telling this story nearly a year later, which is neither close enough to the event itself to justify the inclusion of the transcripts, nor far enough away to justify the almost nostalgic tone of some of her recollections.
The romantic and high-school related elements of First We Were IV are those that feel the most extraneous. With so much else going on in the narrative, I’d have preferred to see more focus on the investigation of the case of the murdered girl and a slower unfolding of how the central four develop their increasingly unhealthy and dangerous mindsets about the purpose of the Order; instead, pages upon pages are devoted to Izzie’s endless waffling on whether she wants to date Graham or Harry, as well as long passages telling us all about the bullies whom the central four eventually accept as initiates into their Order. The only member of the popular crowd with any interesting characteristics is Campbell, who goes along with the bullies despite being conflicted about it, but there are, frankly, so many of these secondary characters that they mostly tend to blur together.
Additionally, the four main characters aren’t really given the same amount of development, leading to a lack of overall investment on the part of the reader. After all, we know Izzie isn’t going to die, since she’s narrating the entire story, so First We Were IV really needed to make us fall in love with Vivian, Graham, and Harry, so that the reveal of whichever one dies makes us want to mourn them. Harry’s storyline functions most effectively, as Harry begins to see his position in the Order as a way to exact subtle revenge on the upper-crust students who continuously bully him—and who once assaulted his father, the school’s custodian, nearly disabling him; conversely, Vivian’s characterization doesn’t get much deeper than formerly-bullied drama student who has decided to make her daily life one big performance. Perhaps fleshing out her home life more—and the story of how Vivian’s mother and Izzie’s father decided to have an affair—would have made Vivian seem more like a fully-rounded character rather than a collection of admittedly cool-sounding outfits and theatrical dialogue.
Overall, First We Were IV starts off strong but really sags in the middle, tempting me to skip to the end where the promise of the first chapter would be fulfilled. In the end, it just tries to do too much—both the Order-as-murder-solving group and the classic high-school-revenge storylines have merit on their own, but perhaps not together, despite the attempts Sirowy makes at linking the two thematically. The high school storyline didn’t feel particularly new or earth-shattering, as there have probably been an infinite number of books about being bullied by popular kids in high school, and trying to get revenge on the bullies leading to more trouble for everyone. For my money, I’d have wanted to see more of a focus on the murder mystery and how it implicates not only the four’s picture-perfect seaside town, but also their parents, friends, and neighbors, which was a more original and creative element.