It’s time for Literary Wives, a blogging club that looks at the depiction of wives in fiction!
Please make sure to check out the posts by the other wives and join in the discussion if you’ve read First Love by Gwendoline Riley.
First Love is the story of Neve’s marriage to Edwyn. They live together in London and are definitely not suited to each other – Edwyn thinks that Neve is dirty and trashy and Neve is self-conscious of her origins compared to Edwyn’s. They go through cycles of calm, where neither are particularly interested in being involved with the other but aren’t at each other’s throats, and explosions of temper than end in threats of leaving each other.
The book looks at Neve’s life and the decisions that ultimately brought her to Edwyn. There’s the relationship with her parents with eerie echoes of her own marriage, the musician she keeps coming back to, thinking that with him she could have had something different, the crushing loneliness of finding herself on her own for the first time.
So this book isn’t long – my copy was 166 pages – which was probably a good thing as I read it in the early newborn days. I read it while nursing or bouncing her around the garden in her baby wrap. How much I was able to focus on what I was reading is about to be determined.
I do remember thinking that this book is exactly the kind of book that would be shortlisted for a literary prize (Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction 2017). I didn’t find it particularly emotional considering the subject matter. There’s always such a distance in books that are considered for such awards, as though emotion is unseemly and unworthy of consideration. One must focus on the craft.
I did feel anger towards Edwyn and Neve’s father for gaslighting the hell out of Neve, making her think that the things she was feeling were invalid, that the things she remembers happening never did. Neve learns to make herself small, to tread softly so as not to incite the wrath of her bullying and overbearing father, traits she brings into her marriage to Edwyn.
I honestly wanted to shake Neve out of her submission and I wanted to slap Edwyn. Reading the conversations between Neve and her husband, where he twists everything she says to make her feel stupid was honestly one of the most infuriating things.
Ultimately, it felt like the kind of book that looks at the cyclical nature of our most important relationships. Neve is treated terribly by her father and when the same comes to pass in her marriage, she doesn’t seem to think she deserves any better.
What does the book say about being a wife?
First Love is a book about being trapped in a marriage, in the role of wife. Neve is unable to see her life without Edwyn in it. She believes his ideas about her, that she drinks too much (she got really drunk once and vomited when she got home, something Edwyn has never let her forget), that she’s trashy, she’s dumb even though she supposedly reads.
Further complicating the matter is the fact that Edwyn suffers from a heart condition, the same one that killed her father. Neve feels intense guilt even thinking about leaving Edwyn, has guilt over her father dying, believing that visiting him more often could have somehow changed the outcome.
Neve has loads of baggage from her relationship with her father, which interferes in her marriage. Even though Edwyn is never physically violent with her, there are echoes of her parents’ marriage in her own and in some ways that makes Neve feel safe. She knows what kind of husband Edwyn will be even as his behaviour becomes more erratic. She believes that as his wife, she’s the only one that can provide him with comfort as he struggles with his health. For Neve, her role as wife means giving over everything of herself in service to her husband.
In October, we’ll be discussing An American Marriage by Tayari Jones.