I'm a fervent fan of Joyce Carol Oates, though I'll admit I don't appreciate all her works equally. I hate to use the judgment "like," as it isn't professional in a critical approach to a book, so I'll say I partially appreciated 'First Love,' with a few reservations. (And I do wish more reviews focused more on criticism and not direct "like" or "dislike." Things are seldom so cut and dried, though I've been lazy in that exact same way myself, so I'm not without sin.)
Even considering my familiarity with her work, I find it difficult to write a review of 'First Love.' On the one hand it's delightfully Gothic, a twisty-turny little book with a bite. On the other the characterizations left me a bit hollow. Or, I should say, the characters themselves felt hollow, under-developed. Did she intend to keep her distance? Could be. If so, I don't feel it particularly worked. Perhaps she misjudged.
I know the theme of a near-incestuous relationship between cousins Jared, Jr. (the seminary student home from school due to his mental issues) and his 11-year old cousin Josie, is upsetting and some will dismiss the entire book due to their distaste of this part of the plot. But, in this case, I believe it was more an issue of ultimate control between the older and younger cousins, with sexual undertones, almost vampyric control actually. Yes, he stripped her naked and washed her and yes he called her "good girl, good girl" before drawing blood first from himself and then her, blood which he blended in ways I won't say. And yes, that's creepy. But that's the point; it was meant to be creepy, to illustrate what was either a mental illness or more a possession of the "Someone call an exorcist" kind. It could go either way. Or both, I guess:
"Mother said tartly, "Sick?' — what's 'sick'? Who is 'well'? Do you imagine, if you or I were minutely examined, we would be one hundred percent 'well'?"
Still and all, the most hollow character, who is very active behind the scene, is Josie's mother. She was beautiful, had left her husband, got a job and almost certainly had an affair. But we have only the barest knowledge of her.
And the religion: the different portraits of Christ, plus the symbolic snake, in this case both sexual and the traditional evil introduced into Eden – the black snake Jared, Jr. claimed to have transformed himself into, take that as you will. Not to mention the family legacy of the men becoming Reverends, and the italicizing of the "Reverend's house." Religion was all over the place, never seen as a positive thing but rather a force to be dealt with and accepted.
Overall, I would recommend the book to Oates fans as well as those into the Gothic. Others less attuned to books delving into evil you may want to give this one a pass. I'm still digesting it, myself, all 86 tiny pages of it. I debated between 3 and 4 stars for far too long, deciding on three for its incomplete coherence and somewhat undeveloped characters.