Day 1248: Literary Wives! First Love

Cover for First LoveToday is another review for the Literary Wives blogging club, in which we discuss the depiction of wives in fiction. If you have read the book, please participate by leaving comments on any of our blogs. Be sure to read the reviews and comments of the other wives!

Emily of The Bookshelf of Emily J.
Eva of Paperback Princess
Lynn of Smoke and Mirrors
Naomi of Consumed By Ink

There is no conventional plot arc in Gwendoline Riley’s First Love, which won this year’s James Tait Black Fiction Prize. Among other things, it shows scenes from a dysfunctional marriage between a writer, Neve, and her husband, Edwyn. It also provides some insight into Neve’s upbringing—her bullying father and her detached mother, whose smile Neve describes as baring her teeth.

What does the title mean, though? We see no evolution of a relationship, only a few scenes of tenderness, but mostly shattering scenes of badgering and bullying from her misogynistic husband. Neve continually reminds herself that her older husband is ill and must feel terrible, but he treats her shamefully.

We see almost more of her previous relationship in her early 20’s with Michael, an American musician. He breaks up with her over a trivial incident and then returning, years later, entices her into a declaration of her feelings only to drop her again. Is this her actual first love? Because she sure doesn’t seem to love her husband. Are we to understand that her damaging first love destroyed her self-esteem to the extent that she puts up with this husband? I don’t know. Just some points to consider.

I’m not sure how much I liked this novel. It certainly provides insight into a classic abusive relationship, but there seems to be no end to this dire situation.

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

Literary Wives logoNeve seems to be drawn to manipulative, cruel men. Although there is some affection in her marriage, it seems to be dependent upon her completely submerging herself to his needs and demands. Edwyn is verbally abusive and on one occasion, physically abusive. The novel blurb describes them as an unsuited couple, but I can’t imagine anyone getting along with this man. Pity and fear seem to be the only things keeping Neve in her marriage. I think this is one of the worst marriages we have studied in this club.

Neve’s role in this marriage seems to be to cater to her husband’s every whim and make no demands. When she tries to reason with him out of his abusive ideas, her arguments are thrown back at her as bitchery and whining. Instead, she fares a little better if she holds her tongue. It is difficult to understand what Neve gets from this relationship.

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8 thoughts on “Day 1248: Literary Wives! First Love

  1. Lynn @ Smoke & Mirrors August 6, 2018 / 1:05 pm

    Oh, yes! Baring her teeth! I couldn’t believe how many times that was mentioned! 🙂 I imagined a dog baring its teeth! Ah, good point in your last sentence! I felt as if the financial security was a huge benefit for her, and I think I may be in the minority, but I felt that Neve truly loved Edwyn and was willing to compromise however was needed. However, it began to get old really quickly and I was glad that she had begun to spend some time with other people.

    • whatmeread August 6, 2018 / 3:13 pm

      I don’t know about the financial security. I know it was mentioned, but I feel as if she stayed because she didn’t really expect much of anything else from a relationship. Maybe?

  2. The Paperback Princess August 6, 2018 / 3:26 pm

    I was wondering the same thing about the title. Edwyn seriously enraged me – there’s no way anyone would get along with him. Why anyone would *marry* him is a mystery.

    • whatmeread August 6, 2018 / 3:31 pm

      Yes, do you suppose it was ironic? Did it refer to the first boyfriend (who wasn’t exactly a gem)? I think this novel leaves a lot of unanswered questions, but maybe it’s just meant as an examination of a relationship.

  3. Naomi August 6, 2018 / 7:21 pm

    I had a lot of the same questions as I read this book. I wondered if Michael was the “first love”. And I wondered how Neve and Edwyn’s marriage came about. And there’s no sign of things getting better. Basically, I agree with your assessment of the book!

  4. Emily J. August 7, 2018 / 4:12 pm

    I’m with you: I’m confused about who her first love is. Does she even have one? Is there such a thing as a first love, when it all goes bad? Is the title ironic? I wasn’t sure what to make of that, but you did a good job of attempting to think about what that might mean. And how did this actually WIN a prize? I’m so confused. I really hated this novel.

    • whatmeread August 7, 2018 / 4:38 pm

      I didn’t hate it, but how it won the prize? Refer to my “books that men like” theory, referring to the publishing industry. Anything detached from real emotion. This way, they could give it to a woman and it would still be their type of book.

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