About ten years ago, I was invited to an awkward dinner at my mother’s house to meet the children of her new husband, number three. They had met and married in a matter of weeks, and I felt the dinner was a farce. My husband, young daughter, and I attended reluctantly. Conversation felt stilted, and we all looked at each other with unease. The most excitement occurred when I accidentally sliced my finger on the foil wrapping of a bottle of sparkling cider, and my mother’s new husband jumped up to help me get a bandage. My mother glared at me for taking attention away from her and making a scene. All of this awkwardness, and other such crazy events (chronicled in this post), remind me of what Neve, in the novel First Love, faces as a young woman trying to navigate her life while putting up with her needy mother, who thinks that marriage is the answer to everything. (My own mother has since been married four times, and the last one didn’t stick either.)
First Love (2017) by Gwendoline Riley is the August 2018 read for the Literary Wives Series, hosted by these bloggers. Check out their posts on this book.
Naomi of Consumed by Ink
Kay of What Me Read
Lynn of Smoke & Mirrors
Eva of The Paperback Princess
We attempt to understand and explore the following question in the books we read for the series.
What does this book say about wives or about the experience of being a wife?
Neve is the principal character, and the stories are told from her point of view, but both she and her mother’s experiences tell the story of being a wife. We learn early on that her mother divorces her father because of eight years of severe abuse, and as Neve tries to navigate her own adult relationships, she finds that her mother’s relationship with wifehood is complicated.
While Neve agrees that her mother’s choice to be divorced because of abuse was a smart one (as Neve herself experiences an abusive former marriage with Edwyn), she is exasperated by her mother’s willingness to keep getting married. Neve has decided that she is happiest single and that dating isn’t for her. Yet her mother marries a man and divorces him ten years later in her 60s because he’s “boring.”
And then, when the mother gets remarried yet again, she smirked “her way through those vows. A wriggly performance” (p. 89). And Neve feels, as a dutiful daughter, that now her mother wants her to play the role and visit her “lovely home” because all is suddenly well. It is as if her mother, lost amid complicated relationships, thinks that marriage will solve all of her (and her grown children’s) problems, despite several marriages with evidence to the contrary. And because Neve doesn’t remarry, her mother assumes that she has an unfulfilling life and accuses her of being “mad.”
This book is really about relationships, not just being a wife, and how difficult love between men and women can be. Expectations are shattered, people are egoistic, violence fills the spaces where love should be, and disappointment abounds.
The novel uses sickness to portray the problems of broken relationships. Neve remembers growing up in filth and sickness, and she feels ill during her marriage without any sympathy from her husband. He verbally assaults her even in these moments, telling her to leave and that he doesn’t want to care for her. He wants her out, despite her illness. Sickness is at the heart of the problems between men and women in this novel, and it is an effective metaphor, especially given that so many of the men are abusive. The men in this story are the ones who are sick, but they blame it on the women and create sickness for them as well.
In the third section of the book, we finaly get a full picture of Neve’s relationship with Edwyn. His abuse is mostly verbal. He’s controlling and mean. He blames all of it on Neve and believes that “women are insane, and manipulative, and sick” (p. 131). This echoes Neve’s father’s behavior and words, as he once told her that women were unclean. The constant stream of negative words he uses to control and hurt Neve remind me of my good friend Shalyce. She recently made it out of a similar abusive relationship, and she writes about it eloquently here. I’m proud of her!
This book gives us a few perspectives on what it means to be a wife. One is that it is boring and fleeting, something impermanent. The other is that it is to be an object of abuse. And we know that leaving an abusive marriage or relationship can be extremely difficult.
If you need help, here is a link to the National Domestic Violence Hotline: http://www.thehotline.org
Abuse is never okay. If you are a victim, it is not your fault.
And while this book covered the important issue of domestic violence, it didn’t do so in a way that was particularly compelling or well written to me. I didn’t really like this novel.
I didn’t focus so much on Neve’s mother’s relationships as on her own. I found her relationship with her musician boyfriend to be sort of a setup for her relationship with her husband. In any case, I felt it might explain somewhat, along with the history of her parents’ marriage, why she didn’t have the self-regard to leave her marriage.
That’s true. Her relationship with the musician was so interesting because she seemed to want to be strong and independent, but then just ended up falling into his arms anyway. I was disappointed by that, but you’re right that her history explains some of it.
It seemed to be a very strange relationship. He dumped her for virtually no reason at all and then played that game of seeming to want to reconcile only to reject her.
I am so glad to hear you say you didn’t really enjoy reading this book! Thank you! I find it to be drudgery…but I did finish! I agree with everything you said. However, I did feel that the illness/sickness to which Neve referred about herself was simply due to alcohol consumption. Did I misinterpret or miss something? Probably… 🙂
You are probably right, but I was looking at sickness as a metaphor. I think it served to describe almost everybody in the book. They were sick. Their relationships were sick. It was all messed up!
I like what you’ve written about Neve and her mother. The book probably would have been more interesting if it looked more closely at the relationship between the two women. Still, there was no heart to this book and the references to abuse were so opaque they didn’t really drive any message home.
Well said! You have encapsulated exactly how I’ve been feeling about the book. I almost want to say it was a waste of my time to read it. And yes, I like the idea that it could have been more effective and interesting if it had been more about the two women.
I would like to have included more about Neve’s mother and her relationships, so I’m glad you did. And it’s interesting to hear your petspective, as someone whose mother has been married multiple times.
I agree with you that the novel wasn’t an enjoyable read. I also found it kind of scattered. I didn’t really know what to focus on. I did find the dynamics between Neve and Edwyn interesting to read about, while at the same time infuriating!
Yes! Scattered is the perfect word to describe the structure of the novel. It was confusing.
Thank you so much for the shout out! Awareness is so important. Thank you for speaking out.
You’re welcome! I sure love you and you are brave.
Love your intro, it sounded like the beginning of an interesting book in itself! Based on reviews I read I wasn’t attracted to reading this novel, but I’ve just finished reading an Egyptian classic, originally published in 1960 and republished in 2017, The Open Door by Latifa Al-Zayyat which is a coming-of-age novel set in Cairo and the role of young women as they develop their own identity is a compelling one, especially in relation to the social codes they live within, and the degree to which some conform to others expectations, while others resist. Even when they wait years before getting into a marriage, there are often the signs already there of what is going to happen. It’s a fraught subject, but a necessary one to discuss. The book I read even inspired a website where women share their experiences, translated, it’s title was “We Are All Layla”. Great review and discussion.
Oh my goodness, The Open Door sounds so good and like something I would love! Thanks for telling me about it. I will try it out.