REVIEW: First Love: Essays on Friendship by Lilly Dancyger

Review by Melissa Oliveira

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cover of first love by lilly dancyger, friends on a fire escape in new york cityLilly Dancyger’s new collection First Love: Essays on Friendship (The Dial Press, May 2024) begins with a title essay so moving, complex and powerful that I had to put the book down just to let the work settle for a minute in my mind.

To describe the essay’s basic narrative, which centers on the extraordinary bond Dancyger and her younger cousin Sabina had, doesn’t really do the piece justice. This relationship is Dancyger’s own first love: a circle of kindness, support and protection beyond just being family or friends. Or, in her own words, “Loving Sabina was how I learned what it means to want someone else’s happiness as badly as I want my own.”

In Dancyger’s book, the bond feels as old and unique as the “Snow White and Rose Red” fairy tale she compares it to, whose title characters are not the “rivals or foes” more typically found in stories about female friendships. But this is not just a collection about one relationship, but many, and none of those friends are simply “rivals or foes” either. “With romantic love,” Dancyger writes, “there’s usually the expectation that you get one at a time. But sisterly love allows for multiplicity, overlapping and interlocking.” The fifteen essays in First Love, then, explore the depths and intricacies of many of these friendships throughout Dancyger’s life, from the intensity of teenage best friends to the longtime friends who have grown up and made their adult lives right beside your own.

The book fittingly starts and ends with essays about Sabina (“First Love” and “On Murder Memoirs” respectively), whose presence resonates throughout. In between these, Dancyger introduces us to other friends whose names and qualities become familiar as we read. The angry group of teens Dancyger was a part of, gathering at night in a New York City park to drink and talk and scream-sing punk songs together separates out into individuals we come to know.

There’s Sydney of “Prison Break,” first glimpsed “wearing Docs and a red tulle petticoat as a skirt” and with an immediate connection with Dancyger. There’s Haley, whose friendship with Dancyger comes across as grand and epic and all-consuming, compared in the essay “Partner in Crime” to the one in the film Heavenly Creatures. There’s smiling Raiona, who starts out as another of the kids partying in the park but who seems to become, over time, a lasting friend of the sort she can explore witchcraft and the world with (in “Spell to Mend a Broken Heart” and “In Search of Smoky Cafés”).

There’s Heather in “Sad Girls” whose teenage misery shows itself, in adulthood, to be much more serious. There are friends who have babies and lose spouses, those who find their footing in the world and those and those who never do. So when Dancyger writes of “Friendships as the tessellation of a person” we can start to put together a kind of picture of a person through how her friends fit together at different points in her life.

The collection’s earlier essays, then, are like snapshots of a certain period of life when it’s easy to bond so quickly with friends with an intensity that, as Dancyger, is “more like we were trying to consume each other.” The friendships that appear later in the volume, once Dancyger is established in her adult life, are no less lovingly written than the earlier ones, but these show friends trying harder to really see each other (quite literally in the case of the beautiful “Portraiture”).

Dancyger’s prose is clear and evocative throughout, and some of the passages I most enjoyed reading were the ones about her teenage friends ranging through the now-disappeared places she describes (the streets, nighttime parks and fire escapes of a less-gentrified New York City). Given all that, I found I was most moved by “First Love” and “The Fire Escape,” and especially by how Dancyger projects the dead into photos of life events in “The Rose Tattoo.” I love the sheer range of topics covered, too. Fairy tales, Sylvia Plath, Anaïs Nin, witchcraft, attraction, drugs, Janis Joplin, Tumblr, Heavenly Creatures, The Craft, Practical Magic: if, like Dancyger says, friendships tessellate to make the person, all these shared obsessions are kind of tessellation of friendships too.

On the whole, though, one of the things I admired most in First Love: Essays on Friendship is the serious and sustained attention Dancyger gives to the close friendships of girls and women. When Dancyger writes, “I inherited chaos like a family heirloom” and describes the instability of her younger life, I’m reminded of how she could have turned this rich material into a number of different books. Instead, Dancyger chose to center on an oft-overlooked or misrepresented topic that she depicts with as much depth and care as romantic love is often given, and it  resulted in a collection very much worth reading.

Melisssa Oliveira

Melissa Oliveira


Melissa Oliveira’s writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Ploughshares Solos, Agni, Pleiades, Calyx and others. Her previous work has garnered a Best American Essays Notable listing, a Best of the Net nomination and an honorable mention from Glimmer Train Stories. Her reviews have appeared in The Kenyon Review Online, Brevity, The Rumpus and more. Melissa currently lives in Berlin, Germany, where she is working on a novel-in-stories about the divided city.

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