First Love by Gwendoline Riley review

Hi everyone! Today I’m reviewing Gwendoline Riley’s First Love, which was shortlisted for the Baileys Women’s Prize earlier this year. Our narrator is Neve, a thirty five year old living in London with her husband Edwyn, who is much older than her and has various ailments. Told mainly through flashbacks, Neve looks back and reflects on her life, particularly her relationships with her abusive father and eccentric mother. She also remembers her romantic relationships as well and discusses her marriage which is fraught with arguments. However is Neve a reliable narrator?

I thought Riley’s prose was very beautiful. Her imagery was incredibly evocative, and whether the story was set in London or Manchester or Glasgow, you felt like you were there with Neve. Her observations about people as well I thought were witty and made me smile which, giving how grim a lot of this book is, was quite a relief. They rang true to me and I liked having them dotted throughout.

However, I did have a problem with First Love. I felt it needed to be longer. My edition clocks in at 167 pages and I felt it could’ve done with another 100. One of the aspects that was affected by the length was the characterisation. Now, I think Neve was wonderfully drawn. It was interesting to watch how these previous relationships were affecting how she acted in her marriage, whether consciously or not. I also liked how initially she seemed quite passive, yet she had this small spark inside of her that allowed her to stand up for herself at times. She wasn’t just a doormat. I also enjoyed reading about her mother and their relationship. Her mother often appeared both funny and tragic – her attempts to integrate herself with a particular crowd was amusing but also strangely depressing. The conversations where Neve is trying in vain to get her mother to see sense are my favourite passages from the book.

However, I thought Edwyn was quite one-note. Neve tells us next to nothing about him, we don’t hear how they met or what their relationship was like before she moved in with him. Subsequently, I couldn’t see why she loved him and wanted to be with him. I found him to be very manipulative and antagonistic – whatever Neve said seemed to set him off onto a rant. At one point he threatens suicide and suggests Neve would be delighted at that, which I found really disgusting and childish. There was nothing appealing about him. Perhaps if we were given more insight into Edwyn I would have felt different, or I could see why Neve did care for him. Instead his character fell flat for me. I didn’t care about his illnesses or their marriage – I found his constant arguing boring.

There was also the interesting idea of expectations in relationships. What happens if your expectations differ from your partners? How do you reach a compromise, or do you compromise at all? I felt these were touched upon but never fully explored. Again I think the book was too short to properly get a full discussion on them, which is a pity because I found these questions fascinating. Riley has crammed a lot into the novel, but I think some of the characters and ideas in First Love have suffered because of the length.

Overall I did like First Love and I would happily read more of Riley’s work. As I said, I think she has beautiful prose and I enjoyed reading about Neve. Yet I felt the book had problems, between underdeveloped characters and half-baked ideas. I just wanted more from it. If you’re a fan of Riley, or are really interested in this type of story then I think you’ll enjoy it. But sadly I won’t be in a rush to pick this one up again soon.

First Love is published by Granta Books and you can find more information here.

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