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The First Desire: A Novelby Nancy Reisman
Synopses & Reviews
1929. Buffalo, New York. A beautiful July day, the kind one waits for through the long, cold winters. Sadie Feldstein, née Cohen, looks out her window at the unexpected sight of her brother, Irving. His news is even more unexpected, and unsettling: their elder sister, Goldie, has vanished without a trace.
With Goldie's disappearance as the catalyst, The First Desire takes us deep into the life of the Cohen family and an American city, from the Great Depression to the years immediately following World War II. The story of the Cohens is seamlessly told from the various perspectives of siblings Sadie, Jo, Goldie, and Irving — each of whose worlds is upended over the course of the novel, the smooth veneer of their lives giving way to the vulnerabilities and secrets they've managed to keep hidden — and through the eyes of Lillian, the beautiful woman their father, Abe, took as a lover as his wife was dying. But while Abe's affair with Lillian stuns his children, they are even more shocked by his cold anger in the wake of Goldie's disappearance.
The First Desire is a book of great emotional power that brings to life the weave of love, grief, tradition, and desire that binds a family together, even through the tumultuous times that threaten to tear it apart.
"Reisman's first novel (after the prize-winning collection, House Fires) is mesmerizing, not because of the action of the plot, which is minimal, but because Reisman demonstrates a rare, poetic understanding of family dynamics. The catalyst for this narrative about the hidden dramas of a Jewish family living in Buffalo from the late 1920s to 1950 occurs offstage. Rebecca Cohen, wife of jewelry store owner Abe, has died, leaving five adult children. Goldie, the eldest, on whom the responsibility for caring for her siblings has fallen, suddenly disappears without a word. Her departure leaves Sadie Cohen Feldstein, the only married sister, to cope with her tyrannical father and difficult siblings, who live together in the family home. Celia is mentally unstable, prone to misbehavior in public. Jo is rude, moody and fiercely resentful of having to protect Celia. Handsome, spoiled Irving is a wastrel and compulsive gambler, too fond of cards, whiskey and women. Abe, the paterfamilias, escapes his family into the arms of Lillian Schumacher, a fallen woman. Goldie's disappearance is also an escape, though the family fears she is dead. Irving escapes his gambling debts by joining the army in 1940. The others yearn to flee their responsibilities, but the years roll by until another family crisis brings Goldie home. The echoing word in the narrative is loneliness, used to signify each character's inchoate longings for connection, understanding, 'touching' (another signal word) and love. Reisman writes with beauty and precise imagery; she describes one character's personality as 'carp under ice, nibbling ancient disappointments.' This realism, subtly laced with tenderness and compassion, distinguishes a novel whose addictive embrace continues after the last page has been turned. Agent, Gail Hochman. (Sept. 14) Forecast: Praise from a veritable who's who list of romantic realists — Ann Patchett, Julia Glass, Charles Baxter, Andrea Barrett — will clue readers in to the excellence of this debut. Expect Reisman to become a fixture on the same list. 10-city author tour." Publishers Weekly (Starred Review) (Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"[A] debut of luminous, distinctive quality. Comparisons will doubtless follow — with Michael Cunningham or Julia Glass, for example — but this is a writer quietly taking her own bold course, and to travel with her as she does is a joy." Boston Globe
"The Depression, along with the pre- and post-WWII eras, are evoked vividly, as is the sense of a vise gradually tightening upon Abe's children....Beneath the sepia tint, fully imagined lives." Kirkus Reviews
"[B]oth lovely and heartbreaking in its vision of family ties at their most inevitable....[A] book of sharp, intense nuances, not one of drastic events. It shares that tactic and an intoxicating lyricism with the work of Ann Patchett and Andrea Barrett." Janet Maslin, The New York Times
"A book that generates its own world and holds the reader captive, willingly, to its landscape....[Reisman] tells the story so beautifully and so compellingly that the reader hardly notices that there's almost nothing to admire or like about these characters..." San Francisco Chronicle
"This is a stealth novel. The characters creep up on you, and before you know it you are inhabiting their world, attuned to intimate details, desires and desperate measures invisible to outside eyes. A lovely read." Ann-Marie MacDonald, author of Fall on Your Knees and The Way the Crow Flies
"Nancy Reisman's first novel is an exquisitely detailed tapestry depicting a small era in the life of one family. How beautifully she writes about the subtle dramas that roil for decades among parents and siblings, about the ways in which the commitment of kinship can make people deeply, unavoidably intimate yet often just as blind to one another's vices, failings, and secret desires. It is a book written with the wisdom bestowed by heartbreak and the complex poetry of truth." Julia Glass, author of Three Junes
"There is not a false move in Nancy Reisman's The First Desire, one of the best tales I have ever read both about belonging to a family and about what the book calls 'the second desire,' the wish to be invisible, to disappear from that family, and to vanish into the American landscape." Charles Baxter, author of The Feast of Love
"The First Desire really is extraordinary work. The prose is consistently lovely — I'd say elegant or graceful, but somehow those over-used terms feel almost inadequate. There's a kind of shocking beauty to the sensuousness of the language — a startling gorgeousness that goes beyond mere elegance or grace. I suspect that's the key to the rich intimacy of the characterizations which lie at the core of the book. To get beneath the skin, to climb into the very hearts of such a range of figures, and at such a remove of years, is a remarkable achievement, and the spark breathed into these varied characters brings their family, their community, the whole mid-century bustle of Buffalo, to burning life. In short, this feels, to me at least, like the kind of book that can (and should) win prizes." Peter Ho Davies, author of Equal Love
"Reisman writes beautifully, a prose of restraint and grace....The achievement of this novel is that you are completely inside it from the moment you begin....This is a story that has the shape of life as it is truly lived." Anna Quindlen, Book-of-the-Month Club News
"[Reisman's] impressionistic, atmospheric debut novel...is a book of rhythms and reveries but not of revelations, a story in which people can share, for decades, a house, a history and little else." Sarah Churchwell, The New York Times Book Review
"[A] major literary triumph....The First Desire inhabits Buffalo, in its intimate, subtly shaded way, every bit as fully and historically as Lauren Belfer's City of Light....Beautifully written....Moving." Jeff Simon, The Buffalo News
"Accomplished....Reisman's sumptuous prose, and her canny knowledge of the corrosive ways an average family can come apart, make The First Desire a lovely, absorbing companion." Entertainment Weekly
"A superb new writer....Reisman, whose sensually charged, often outright stunning style strongly evokes Virginia Woolf...proves herself a rare master of internal drama, able to isolate the moment that effects a sea change within a lifetime of compromise." Vogue
"Nancy Reisman has written a book in which the sentences are so lush, the characters are so vivid, and the story is so compelling, I felt I had stepped inside the world she created and had taken up residence. I want to tell you how much I loved it there. The First Desire is not a book to be merely read. It is a book to be lived." Ann Patchett, author of Bel Canto
"Like Virginia Woolf's The Years, this rich tapestry — a first novel, amazingly — captures both the overarching history of a family and the deepest emotions of each of its members. Reisman is a wonderful writer." Andrea Barrett, author of Ship Fever
"Nancy Reisman's The First Desire is, simply, the most beautifully written novel I've read in ages, a book that is as merciless and tender as real life. There's something of the work of Sue Miller and Alice Munro in this wonderful book: Reisman's characters are people who will live in your head for a long time after reading The First Desire. She writes better than anyone about the small heartbreaks and large tragedies of family life — what you give up to stay in a family, and what you give up to leave." Elizabeth McCracken, author of The Giant's House
A debut novel "of startling asurance and poise" (Nicholas Delbanco, author of What Remains), The First Desire takes readers back to the 1929 disappearance of Goldie Cohen and what happened to her family during the tumultuous years that followed.
About the Author
Nancy Reisman is the author of House Fires, a short story collection that won the 1999 Iowa Short Fiction Award. Her work has appeared in, among other anthologies and journals, Best American Short Stories 2001, Tin House, and The Kenyon Review. She has received fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown. She lives in Ann Arbor, where she currently teaches creative writing at the University of Michigan.
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