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.