If ever there was a book for our uncaring, unsharing times, it is Gwendoline Riley’s First Love, in which Neve, a woman in her mid-thirties, struggles with a truly awful family and with the men in her life, while trying to make a career as a writer. That latter point might suggest some kind of
bildungsroman approach, but in fact the meat of First Love is in its rich character depictions, from which Riley teases out a series of painful but exquisitely comedic episodes.
Neve’s father is a crude, self-styled ‘socialist’, full of class resentment and personal bitterness, while her pretentious mother, now remarried to a condescending Sunday painter, is so utterly self-absorbed that she is blind to Neve’s difficulties, forever complaining about her own lot instead. Neve’s husband, Edwyn, while not entirely unsympathetic, appears to be one of those men who make lack of empathy a matter of principle, even a badge of honour (when Neve’s father dies, he says, ‘I don’t understand it… You’re an intelligent woman. Did you think he was going to live forever?’), while her occasional lover, an American rock musician named Michael, moves in and out of her life whenever it suits him and is not above stealing from her.
Yet, as awful as all this sounds, Riley makes acute comedy out of Neve’s predicament, in the tradition of Huxley’s more acerbic early work, or the Orwell of Keep the Aspidistra Flying, even as she flirts with, and ultimately sends up, the ‘chick-lit’ school of writing about single women and their relationships. With cool equanimity, she gives us excruciatingly sentimental exchanges in which Neve and Edwyn exchange babyish endearments, on the one hand, and breathtakingly callous betrayals by the people Neve needs most, on the other.
But she also shows her protagonist as a knowing, self-aware and far from stupid individual, undermined by a shameful sense of deep need. Yes, Neve is too easy a target; and, not far into the novel, some readers may want to give her a good shake and tell her to pull herself together. But we also see that she is what she is, not just because she was raised by a pair of competing narcissists, but also because she inhabits a cynical social milieu in which people bleed one another of love and trust almost unawares.
However, the clinching factor in this novel’s success is the portrayal of Neve herself. It would have been easy to make her a more or less noble, more or less innocent victim, but Riley sees from the first how dishonest that would be. People who are hurt by life do not become saints; more usually they tend towards self-preoccupation, neediness and guilt. They cling to others, they bleed what they can out of situations, and then they experience deep shame — after the fact. Riley knows this, and it is to her credit that she holds to that line, up to and beyond the final dubious hint of redemption.