This dreadfully titled, illustrated novella is a morbidly engrossing tale of child abuse, in which an 11-year-old girl named Josie falls for the twenty-something seminary student — her cousin — who violates her on the riverbank near the house where they live. More complex than Joyce Carol Oates’ somewhat gothic depiction of the ”lovers” is Josie’s conflicted relationship with her mother, who manages to be both contemptible for her selfishness and laudable for her honesty. Just when Josie finds the wherewithal to defy her tormentor, her mother belatedly recognizes her own maternal shortcomings and admits to ”not seeing” Josie’s numerous problems. Like many of Oates’ novels, First Love is smart and nuanced, but it’s weakened by the author’s penchant for romance-novel melodrama and cheapened by her fascination with tabloidy scenes of degradation. B+
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