It’s no small accomplishment to wring so much feeling and suspense from an examination of stasis ... Riley — whose early novels were light on plot and heavy on hard-drinking, acerbic young narrator-protagonists from the north of England who entangle themselves with men in bands — has occasionally been misread through a lens of trendy melancholia. But her work, especially since the breakthrough of First Love, more closely resembles the sturdy yet delicate realism of the late 19th century — Chekhov, Stendhal — in which mundane objects, landscapes and exchanges are imbued with rich layers of social and psychological meaning that shift as they are turned under the light. Like Mary Gaitskill, whose contemporary subject matter has sometimes served as a distraction, Riley is among other things a moralist.
... [an] elusive, chronologically chaotic take on the power dynamics of love ... The tone is melancholic but tender ... The joys of such intimacy, the sympathy between two people in love are elegantly, beautifully written; Riley’s prose shimmering and luminous ... Riley provides few moments in counterbalance to Edwyn’s monstrous behaviour. Their meeting, the first throes of their romance, are not elaborated upon; the odd instances of warmth shared are glossed quickly over. It’s a brutalising, intensely claustrophobic effect, one that shows two people trapped by their own emotions, appalled and attracted by one another in equal measure. While there are conscious echoes and a few nods to Turgenev in this First Love, it’s Harold Pinter who comes most readily to mind during Neve and Edwyn’s combative dialogues ... Riley’s writing has always been clear, focused, still – rather like an Edward Hopper painting – but First Love is fuller, more refined, and underpinned by a suffocating tension. Neve’s self-detachment pushes the novel towards a conclusion that offers glimpses of happiness and ambiguous suggestions of hope, but this is an uncomfortable book – one of naked truths, of unvarnished life, written in sentences that surprise in their collision of beauty and savagery. It shows a writer at the very height of her powers, grappling and snaring her themes into a singular, devastating journey into the ungovernable reaches of the heart.
This is, in a truly wonderful way, a perfectly horrible little novel. I read it in a kind of perpetual squirm, in a series of flinches and gasps. It is exact and exacting, and has the nasty pleasure of testing an unhealed abrasion ... the narrative of desire culminating in freedom from desire is found to be problematic at best, toxic at worst. But the precision with which Riley incises these issues is never short of remarkable ... I don’t know if 'funny' is the right word for a book so specific about hurt and harm, but there is a strange levity about First Love. The scenes with Neve’s mother in particular have an observed absurdity that seems like a flintier, more sarcastic version of Alan Bennett ... Part of what makes this such a memorable novel is a stereoscopic quality. Riley specialises in narrators who are both frighteningly self-conscious and yet obtusely unaware. They narrate with confidence about their own experience, and yet there is a kind of block beneath the fluency, an unsaid, unadmitted resistance ... Riley’s prose makes all this a faintly nauseous delight. There is such damage wrought and pain caused, it makes it even worse that the prose is so lithe. The grubbiest of matters is told in pristine prose.
... the relationships Riley writes about offer little refuge or redemption. They are sites of unproductive struggle, interesting not for what they might become but for how they repeatedly refuse to become anything other than what they are ... offer a remarkable confrontation with what we can’t help knowing, but what fiction—so often about relations coming into being, evolving, even ending—rarely represents: that relationship dynamics are hard to change ... Riley captures the private half-language that develops between people in love ... Other narrators might perform embarrassment in setting out such exchanges, but Neve’s cool tone shifts the embarrassment onto the reader: Even as she offers us these phrases, it feels as if we’re intruding.
[Riley] She knows just how to get her characters through the doorway and into a scene—all that they have to do, in order to sign their own moral death warrants, is start talking ... Novels that so emphatically lack charity threaten to enroll the guilty reader in nothing more than the author’s hellish vengeance. They can seem hard to justify. One has the sense, reading Riley, of being involved in an alarming experiment, that of reading the world without the slightest mercy or compromise. But at least, in this state of nature, the dynamics of survival and damage are usefully laid bare ... Another result of Riley’s experiment in unillusioned dissection is that we truly see her characters, in their descriptive nakedness, alive and horridly vivid ... One thing that heartlessly unsentimental writing does is force the reader to generate the very sympathy such books lack. Stirred in this way, I found myself oddly drawn to Bridget’s mother in particular ... In fact, My Phantoms is not without its glimmers of charity and compassion, and it’s a better novel than First Love for them.
For a book with a romantic-sounding title, First Love is decidedly brutal ... compelling from the beginning. In precise, economic prose Riley conveys a sense of Edwyn and Neve’s intimate relationship ... Neve’s mother is self-absorbed and chaotic and her stream of consciousness-based conversations will reverberate long after you finish reading the book ... Riley also evokes the sense of hot frustration that Neve feels as a result of her father’s bullying which, coupled with her sense of his vulnerability, makes it difficult to cut her ties with him ... it’s not all bleak. Neve’s exchanges with her hysterical, childlike mother and husband are both at times funny ... Nor does Riley shy away from unpleasant descriptions and bodily functions ... Through all these flawed relationships, what endures is Neve’s strong sense of herself, which prevents the subject matter from becoming unbearably depressing. She is able to detach herself and tolerate those closest to her in all their imperfect humanity, taking the reader with her in a conspiratorial way. There’s a certain romance in that. This is an engrossing novel and Riley’s writing shines through.
... caustic, unsparing, occasionally funny and always perceptive ... Riley exposes our savage impulses, and the regret that typically follows ... Much has been made of Riley's youth – she was 22 when she was first published, and this is her fifth novel – and of the autobiographical elements of her writing. Regardless of what inspired the material, the execution is luminous and dazzlingly brilliant.
Narrativizing the past is often understood as a means to avoid remaining beholden to it, but Riley doesn’t exactly advocate for the redemptive power of such storytelling. Just as emotional awareness never moves in a straight line, neither do the plots of these fantastically upsetting books. Riley isn’t encouraging anyone to heal their past; she seems to be arguing that this kind of redemption is a myth ... Riley’s work, though resonant in the present day—when love languages and attachment theory are common parlance—also has a timeless nuance. She slows her scenes down, like a record played at half speed, to reveal the hidden undertow beneath two people trying to reach each other.
A reader feels intrusive, as uncomfortable with what appears to be genuine happiness as with genuine vitriol. Riley draws out the perverse invasiveness of reading about a couple. She invites the reader into their relationship but doesn’t provide quite enough for us to understand what we are witnessing. What do these two see in each other? Why does Neve stay with this man? Maybe she doesn’t even know ... We are strangers to ourselves and to one another. The novel reminds us of this again and again. Neve and Edwyn’s conversations are riddled with misunderstandings, some of them willful. I found myself flipping back a few pages, trying to find where in each interaction things started to go wrong, trying to pinpoint a word or a phrase ... There’s delight and horror in the entomologist’s art: stick a thin pin into that dry bug body, fix it to the hard white board ... Riley’s lucid prose whips the reader up into a swift reading pace. One cannot help but whisper aloud this painful-to-read dialogue, which captures the oddness of spoken language with all its inflections of dialect and grammatical oddities. There is an unpolished, transcript-like quality to Riley’s dialogue, so much so that it often reads with the out-of-place disjointedness of a Beckett play. No matter how well Neve is able to dissect her mother’s failings in her private internal monologue, in conversation, language arrives to the other in a garbled state, as if transported by the telephone game ... I prefer the looser First Love over the more focused My Phantoms — but with every effort, you can feel Riley honing her craft. She is perfecting a particular kind of despair.
... a simple enough story, but a devastating read ... Their lengthy arguments — always prompted when Edwyn willfully misunderstands one of Neve's offhand remarks — are brilliant examples of escalating gaslighting and abuse. They are a horror to read ... poignantly sad, but...sprinkled with crucial humor...feel[s] very, very true.
... a razor-sharp portrait of everyday life in a volatile marriage ... Neve's pointed first-person narration is, at times, darkly funny and abrasively caustic. Often defined by a sparse, hard-edged prose style, her voice is startlingly unsentimental as it reassembles the pieces of her previous relationships. This fragmented structure is as fittingly jagged-edged as the novel's characters, who cannot seem to avoid hurting each other with their own vulnerabilities and desires. Some of these figures are primarily comedic--Neve's marriage-hungry mother and her self-indulgent ex--but others, such as her father and her husband, occupy a more threatening position that bring the tensions of relational power dynamics to the fore. Rather than producing a kind of callousness on Neve's part, however, these frequent acts of emotional devastation instead result in a raw nerve that pulses under the surface of her marriage, a sensitivity that keeps readers flinching at every new blow ... By turns discomforting and irreverently comic, Riley's novel is always insightful as it grapples with Neve's central dilemma.
Riley’s brilliant ear for dialogue falls in an excellent British literary lineage that includes Henry Green and Barbara Pym ... Neve’s mother, weak and brightly smiling, is also impeccably conveyed ... We are fortunate when so gifted a writer illuminates, with such nuance, what life is like.
... mark[s] a distinct maturation in Riley’s storytelling powers, despite—or precisely through—[its] compulsive repetition of the same old themes ... a book in which not much really happens, even as its emotional stakes feel increasingly dire. Riley is frequently compared to Jean Rhys, Albert Camus, or something akin to kitchen-sink existentialism, but her novels seem to share more with the stuffed, claustrophobic apartments of Barbara Pym novels or Harold Pinter plays ... This halting language, at turns exacting and equivocating, is exemplary of Riley’s prose, which frequently presents a strong thesis only to immediately turn in on itself.