First Love tells the story of a young woman married to an older man. The story is told from Neve’s perspective and we’re given rounded accounts of her time with Edwyn and her relationships with her family and her former relationships.
The book is excellent at picking out the seemingly minor details of life, like the way that noises in your house can alert you to the presence of your partner and how much can be conveyed from the eyes and expressions of her mother. Neve describes Edwyn’s movement when they’re rowing, the things he says and the assumptions he makes about her. We’re given full descriptions of the movements, right down to the fingers. Riley delivers this in precise, deceptively simple prose that gives a striking portrayal of relationships.
There are moments of tenderness between Neve and Edwyn, such as the pet names they call each other, their declarations of love and some hugs, but the bad times are what really resonate throughout. At times Edwyn’s behaviour is nothing less that monstrous. He kicks off at minor things, causing Neve’s voice to go timid as she withdraws into herself. At these times the life is draining out of her while Edwyn is powering up. There’s a particularly sickening scene that tells us about how he treated her after she got drunk. We find out more about Edwyn’s illness throughout the book and how Neve handles this and the way she work around things.
Her mother is quite an unusual character. There’s scenes of them going to the cinema together, with her mother not allowing Neve to sit beside her as she usually goes alone. We’re told of how she keeps herself busy but doesn’t really make friends. She certainly appears to be a bit of a motormouth as she has a series of long monologues, with her conversations with her daughter probably representing good chances to get a lot of chat out of her system.
Her mother thinks she knows how to relate to people better than Neve does. Neve certainly says to Edwyn on numerous occasions that she can survive on her own and the idea of freedom is something that recurs throughout the book. Neve questions whether there is something about her that horrifies people but she appears to have been dealt a rough hand in life in terms of the men that have played a key role in her life. This includes her father, a man that quickly flew into rages, made her brother ill and shamed her at points.
First Love brilliantly assesses the nature of love. It looks at the way this can represent different things and how it can sometimes just be an idea of love that’s present. There’s sense of loneliness throughout with people having to plod their own course and find ways to distract themselves from their daily situation. It highlights the way one incident can take over everything, constantly being brought up over the course of a relationship. This short book can easily be read in a single sitting, managing to pack serious power into its pages but its ideas and characters will continue to resonate.