#LiteraryWives: First Love by Gwendoline Riley

Literary Wives is an on-line book group that examines the meaning and role of wife in different books. Every other month, we post and discuss a book with this question in mind:

What does this book say about wives or about the experience of being a wife?

Don’t forget to check out the other members of Literary Wives to see what they have to say about the book!

First Love by Gwendoline Riley

First Love has been nominated for five different major literary prizes, including the Women’s Prize for Fiction and the James Tait Black Memorial Prize.

Goodreads synopsisNeve, the novel’s acutely intelligent narrator, is beset by financial anxiety and isolation, but can’t quite manage to extricate herself from her volatile partner, Edwyn. Told with emotional remove and bracing clarity, First Love is an account of the relationship between two catastrophically ill-suited people walking a precarious line between relative calm and explosive confrontation.

Overall, I liked this book, but didn’t love it. Neve’s relationships with her mother, with Michael and with Edwyn were all interesting to read about, but I found that they didn’t mean enough to  me. I just felt sorry for everyone, and nothing seemed to get any better.

Poor Neve had a crappy father, a crappy step-father, a crappy experience with her first love, Michael, and is now in a crappy marriage with Edwyn. How did their marriage even come about? It either wasn’t made clear, or I missed it.

Neve’s relationship with Edwyn was the most fascinating part of the novel, but I didn’t find enough time was spent on it. Big chunks of the book were taken up by Michael (the first love of the title?) and her mother. Her mother might have been an interesting character, having come through two bad marriages herself, but for some reason I didn’t care about her. And if Michael was supposed to be significant in Neve’s life, he should also have gotten more page time. On the page their relationship was too short to care about.

So far, I sound like I’m pretty down on this book, but there were certain scenes I was fascinated by, usually between Neve and Edwyn. I could picture them so perfectly together, having their discussions, watching Neve shrinking smaller and smaller into herself as Edwyn twisted everything she said and used it against her. The dialogue was fantastic. And Edwyn was disturbing – the way he could switch from loving and affectionate to accusing and critical and downright abusive. Neve would defend herself (mildly, but determinedly) at first, but it didn’t matter what she said, Edwyn could out-talk her every time, until she would just sit there and take it until he was done. He was clearly the one who was off his rocker, but he was so confident about it being the other way around it’s easy to see how he might be able to make Neve doubt herself after a while.

And while he might have said that this is ‘how he was’, for me it continued to be frightening, panic-making, to hear the low, pleading sounds I’d started making, whenever he was sharp with me. This wasn’t how I spoke. (Except it was.) This wasn’t me, this crawling, cautious creature. (Except it was.) I defaulted to it very easily. And he let me. Why?

On the other hand, when Neve and Edwyn were getting along, they were sickeningly affectionate, calling each other pet names like “pusskins” (gah!).

So it was both strange, and dreadful – I knew it – to feel that I was managing him, in a way. Beyond bringing him out of himself, or my genuine interest; that I was maintaining this keen and appreciative front as a way to keep him calm, or to distract him. Like – I don’t know – throwing some sausages at a guard dog.

So what keeps Neve from leaving him? Does the good outweigh the bad? Does it ever, in any relationship? Should it?

It seems I came away with more questions than answers from this book. Maybe the other Literary Wives can help me out.

Next: Monday, October 1st – An American Marriage by Tayari Jones… Join us!

31 thoughts on “#LiteraryWives: First Love by Gwendoline Riley

  1. whatmeread says:

    Yay! You made it! I think we have the same questions as you do. Why would anyone marry Edwyn, and is the title meant to be ironic? Does it refer to her old boyfriend, who was no prize himself?

    • Naomi says:

      I managed to get my post up on time, anyway! 🙂
      Yes, I’d say that, after reading all the others, we all feel similarly about this book.

  2. Alex says:

    First of all, welcome back to the land of blog. Secondly,mI love the idea of a monthly book club, and group discussions on separate blogs, so everyone can compare notes, thoughts and reactions. Not sure about this book though. It sounds like it was never really fleshed out enough, to be a fully engaging read.

    • Naomi says:

      One of the things I like best about our group is comparing notes. In this case, we seem to all feel pretty much the same about the book, but that’s not always the case. It also gets me reading books I might not normally have picked up.

      Thanks for the welcome back… so far it’s been a slow process. 🙂

      • Alex says:

        Sounds like you have a good bunch in your group. It helps with entusiasm, and yes, also making us read works we might not otherwise choose.

  3. lauratfrey says:

    I remember everyone hating this book when it read up for prizes, but that quotes got me interested…

    Can’t wait to hear what you all think of American Marriage! I devoured it.

  4. Col says:

    I read this at the time of its Women’s Prize nomination but didn’t really enjoy it – in part because I just didn’t have any time for Edwyn as a character and couldn’t fathom why she put up with him!!!

    • Naomi says:

      It’s hard to imagine having to put up with Edwyn! That’s one of the things I found fascinating about the book. Her other relationships didn’t interest me as much.

  5. JacquiWine says:

    I must admit that this book never really appealed to me in spite of its inclusion in various literary shortlists. It sounds like a fairly unsatisfying reading experience, particularly given the questions you were left with at the end…

  6. A Life in Books says:

    Hope you had a lovely break, Naomi. I’ve enjoyed your Bookmarks tour on Twitter.

    I admired First Love for it’s spare, sharp writing but I’m not sure it’s a book you can love. You’ve prompted me to return to my own review which says that the book ends ‘on a note of frail hope’ which may tell you more about me than Riley’s novella! It’s a very bleak view of love.

    • Naomi says:

      ‘Admire’ is a good word for this book. And, like I said in my review, Neve and Edwyn’s relationship was interesting to read about, even if it was bleak.

      We had a wonderful trip! And thanks for following along on my Bookmark “tour”… it was a lot of fun for me! (And my family members were good sports about it!)

  7. Rebecca Foster says:

    My reaction to this book was similar to yours. The dynamic between the couple, and the other main characters, was interesting, but the story hasn’t stayed in my mind. So I wasn’t as violently opposed to the novel as many readers were, but nor did it do much for me.

    I’m reading An American Marriage now! Another fairly bleak view of marriage so far…

  8. Emily J. says:

    Oh my goodness! I had no idea this one was nominated for prizes. HOW?!?!?! I am glad you mentioned the dialogue. It was exquisite and accurate and what made the book. It gave me something to go on when writing about the abuse, but that was probably the only highlight for me.

  9. Lynn @ Smoke & Mirrors says:

    Yep! I agree with everything you said and we used some of the same quotes! I did not enjoy reading this book. I ended up really not caring about any of the characters. I just felt I couldn’t truly connect with the story or anything about it. Thank goodness it was short! 🙂 Definitely more questions and wondering than answers. I have read other books with similar organization, but found them enjoyable. Perhaps it was just my mood…

    • Naomi says:

      I think we all agree that this isn’t the most enjoyable book we’ve read, but I still found a few of the scenes worth reading.
      It was nice to have you back this month, Lynn! 🙂

    • Naomi says:

      Your feeling about her writing is very similar to Susan’s from A Life in Books. This is the only one of her books I’ve read, so I have nothing else to go on… I’m noticing that she’s written quite a few, though!

  10. buriedinprint says:

    Heheh I was giggling about your description about the various relationships, thinking about my oider step-daughter’s phase with saying “crappity crap crap crap” before she started into real and true swearing. Poor Neve: sounds like a rough go! This sounds like it could make for an interesting discussion though – if there are more questions than answers? Usually that’s a good thing, I think…

    • Naomi says:

      I usually think it’s good to be left with questions, but maybe not quite as many as this book left me with. Maybe there’s such a thing as too many questions?

      • buriedinprint says:

        I can see that. I could also see it being too many of a certain kind? But I’m not sure I could say what that kind would be… exactly… Heheh

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