First Love

First Love

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by Joyce Carol Oates, Barry Moser

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Violations of trust and virginity, bad blood, and a hint of incest haunt the landscape of this darkly gothic tale of divided family loyalties, psychological manipulation, and the tangled strands of love and fear in the mind of an adolescent girl. Barry Moser's beautifully haunting woodcuts enhance the general sense of unease.


Violations of trust and virginity, bad blood, and a hint of incest haunt the landscape of this darkly gothic tale of divided family loyalties, psychological manipulation, and the tangled strands of love and fear in the mind of an adolescent girl. Barry Moser's beautifully haunting woodcuts enhance the general sense of unease.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Oates's compelling gothic tale, set in Upstate New York apparently in the late 1950s or early '60s, is an intense, perfervid study of child sexual abuse, religious hypocrisy and family breakdown. Eleven-year-old Josie and her ruthlessly self-centered mother, Delia, spend a summer at the weather-worn house of Josie's angry, forbidding great-aunt Esther Burkhardt, whose son, Jared Sr., a Presbyterian minister, died mysteriously years ago after his church burned down. Delia is distant and volatile, often physically abusive; she has just left her husband for mysterious reasons. Esther's gaunt, solitary, compulsively clean grandson, Jared Jr., a bookish 25-year-old seminary student, repeatedly preys on Josie, sexually violating her, taunting her in a low, hypnotic voice. He cuts her stomach with a broken clamshell, forces her to lick her own blood to seal their bond as cousins, shows her porno photos of tortured, naked girls and terrifies her into silence with his threats. Guilt-ridden, emotionally numb Josie becomes a class clown and troublemaker who obsessively digs her nails into her own flesh, symbolically punishing herself. With her usual skill, Oates creates a claustrophobic atmosphere of festering evil. Through hints, forebodings and mythic symbols, her slim but hypnotic tale speaks volumes about the pain and helplessness of sexually abused children too frightened to speak out to uncomprehending adults. The power of this beautifully produced book is augmented by Moser's eerie woodcuts, which crystallize the aura of menace. (Aug.)
Library Journal
The "first love" 11-year-old Josie encounters in this novella, first published in the Ontario Review in 1966, is a dark and ugly thing. She has been taken by her flighty, self-indulgent mother to live with relatives in a large house haunted by the past. There she meets her 25-year-old cousin, Jared, an intense, withdrawn seminary student who draws her into a series of bizarre rituals involving mutilation. Josie is obsessed and unresisting, and seeing her flail about, manipulated by Jared and abandonned by the adults who should be caring for her, is profoundly painful. Eventually, Josie reneges on a promise, and she is set free. Enthralling and overwritten, psychologically acute and deftly tuned to contemporary writing trends, First Love is vintage Oates. Given the illustrations, this feels like a gift book, but it should fit nicely in comprehensive Oates collections.Barbara Hoffert, "Library Journal"
Kirkus Reviews
Oates's zillionth novel (or, more properly, long story) once again explores the familiar territories of rural upstate New York and endangered preadolescence with a concentrated intensity that earns it a place alongside her superb (and underrated) novella I Lock My Door Upon Myself (1990). Told in alternating first- and second-person narratives, the story is about the disturbingly memorable summer when 11-year-old Josie and her adventurous mother leave Josie's father to go live with Aunt Ester in "the Reverend's house" on Trinity Street in Ransomville ("a country town where everyone went to church but no one much believed in God"). The symbolic provenance is thus established early on—and it grows stronger as the lonely Josie's fascination with her adult cousin Jared, a theology student being groomed to continue his family's long tradition of providing ministers for the Presbyterian church, possesses her imagination. Succumbing to Jared's hypnotic commands, Josie is led to the threshold of full sexual experience—and something rather worse—before the summer abruptly climaxes and her education in adult feeling culminates in a transformation that supersedes Jared's yearnings. Oates tells this essentially familiar tale through vivid figurative language and sharp contrasts. The threatening presences of a huge black snake, a predatory black hawk, and—most ingeniously—multiple images of Jesus on the walls of Jared's study provide striking objective correlatives to Josie's fortuitous submergence in a fear that, she discovers, can save one's life. And there's a brilliantly manipulated parallel between the confident, mysterious sexuality flaunted by Josie'sstrong-willed mother Delia and Josie's own furtive initiation into the conundrums of sex. The humid, seductive ambiance of Josie's dangerous summer is evoked with carefully chosen and skillfully understated details. Oates at her best—and a happy reminder that she remains one of our foremost chroniclers of childhood's awakening and woman's fate.

Product Details

HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
4.48(w) x 6.46(h) x 0.31(d)

Meet the Author

Joyce Carol Oates is a recipient of the National Medal of Humanities, the National Book Critics Circle Ivan Sandrof Lifetime Achievement Award, the Chicago Tribune Lifetime Achievement Award, the National Book Award, and the PEN/Malamud Award for Excellence in Short Fiction, and has been nominated for the Pulitzer Prize. She has written some of the most enduring fiction of our time, including the national bestsellers We Were the Mulvaneys; Blonde, which was nominated for the National Book Award; and the New York Times bestseller The Accursed. She is the Roger S. Berlind Distinguished Professor of the Humanities at Princeton University and has been a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters since 1978.

Brief Biography

Princeton, New Jersey
Date of Birth:
June 16, 1938
Place of Birth:
Lockport, New York
B.A., Syracuse University, 1960; M.A., University of Wisconsin, 1961

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First Love 1 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Very weird...I kept reading it just to see if something interesting would happen, but it never did. When I was done, I just kept thinking 'What a strange book.' Don't waste your time or money...I was glad I had just checked it out from the library! I wouldn't even want it sitting on my bookshelf!