First Love by Gwendoline Riley
Opening sentence: “I used to look at houses like this one from the train: behind the ivy-covered embankment, their London brick, sash windows.”
I generally really do like books that are character focused rather than plot driven, which this is, but sadly it didn’t do anything for me, because I simply did not like the characters. This is a book about love, but not the happy ending, butterflies in your stomach type. First Love takes a far more dark and complex approach. 33-year-old Neve is in an unhappy and claustrophobic marriage with an older man, Edwyn. She finds herself there due to a history of detached and dysfunctional relationships with both her family (specifically parents) and an ex-boyfriend.
This is Neve’s story, narrated by her, and yet she often comes across as insipid and uninspiring. Yes, she is a damaged product of her upbringing, which leads her to make bad decisions and crave a love that essentially, isn’t there, but what I found frustrating was that she does acknowledge the situation of her terrible marriage (‘Leave the room if he calls you a name. If you save money you can leave the flat if he’s nasty. Stand up for yourself but don’t waste your energy.’) but doesn’t do anything about it, or if she does, we don’t get to see it as this book is just a snapshot of this moment in Neve’s life, so leaves us with no satisfactory conclusion to the narrative. Edwyn is actually one of the most unlikable characters I’ve encountered in a while; self-absorbed, defensive and verbally abusive, he made me feel uncomfortable every time he had a line of dialogue.
It wasn’t that I was disinterested while reading, it was certainly evocative and the prose flows effortlessly, it’s just that I finished this feeling melancholy and unsettled, yet not in a thought provoking way (like, say, when I read The Vegetarian.) None of the characters (main or supporting) were happy or likeable and that was all just a bit depressing. I need to engage with the characters to enjoy the read and in this case, I just didn’t.