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
"[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.
Reading Group Guide
The questions, discussion topics, and suggestions for further reading that follow are designed to enhance your group’s exploration of The First Desire
, Nancy Reisman’s richly textured novel about the commitments and the compromises that lie at the heart of family relationships. In portraying the private lives of the Cohen family in Buffalo, New York, from the Great Depression to the post—World War II years, Reisman illuminates as well the social and political milieu of mid-twentieth-century America.
1. The First Desire mainly revolves around a family. Do you think the meaning of family shifts over the course of the novel? How is the Cohen family as a whole changed by the end of the novel? Does the house itself–its structure and atmosphere–take on particular meanings for the family members or for you as a reader?
2. In The First Desire, each chapter highlights stories and voices of different characters. How do you see the chapters working together to form a novel? The novel offers many of the characters’ perspectives and life experiences but doesn’t offer the father’s view. Why do you think the author has chosen not to show Abe’s point of view? Similarly, Celia is the only Cohen sibling not given chapters of her own. In your reading, do Celia’s perceptions and her interpretations of events, presented by the others, serve as a kind of shadow narrative throughout the novel? Are there other effects? How do the perspectives of the characters grow and/or change over the course of the novel? What incidents or family developments best explain the transformation?
3. What do Sadie’s conversations with Irving reveal to you about the members of the family? What do you learn about Sadie as she prepares to visit the house on Lancaster and from her conversations with Celia, her father, and Jo? How does the crisis bring out her ambivalent feelings about the family and her role in it? What insights do the descriptions of her marriage provide about the way she conducts herself?
4. To what extent are the family dynamics shaped by Jewish culture? Is the way Abe treats his daughters a reflection of his background and the traditions of a Jewish household? How does it differ from the way he treats his son, Irving?
5. Jo refers to herself as “the spare daughter.” Is her position in the family self-imposed, a result of her attitudes and behavior, or does the family structure leave her little choice? How does her sense of self relate to her fascination with the movies and with “girl bandits”? In your view, what is the significance of her infatuation with Lucia Mazzano? In what ways are her feelings doubly transgressive? Does her attraction to a woman surprise you?
6. Consider the mothers in The First Desire. How do you think the absence of Rebecca Cohen affects each of her children? In your view, why is Sadie the only daughter to become a mother? How would you describe her as a mother? Can you imagine what Rebecca might have been like as a mother? If so, what moments or details enable you to picture her? How do you see the relationship between Lillian and her mother, “whose love is the color of bruises”? Had Lillian married Abe, do you imagine her relationships with Abe’s children would have changed? If so, in what ways?
7. How does Irving’s position as the only boy and the youngest child in the family affect his character? Do his sisters and his father contribute to his choices about everything from drinking to women to “borrowing” money from the store? To what extent does the tenor of the times explain his behavior as a young man? Why do you think he adopts another name when he is trying to pick up women? Why might it be “easier to be Irving in England [during World War II] than it was in the States”?
8. Is Goldie, in a similar way, marked by being the oldest child in the family and the only one not born in America? Do her memories of her arrival with her mother in 1901 and the need to adjust to life in a new place help to explain why she became the woman she is?
9. The First Desire is set in Buffalo in the first half of the twentieth century. In what ways do place and time seem significant? How do the characters react to and feel about the landscape, weather, and atmosphere of Buffalo? Do the seasons play into the storytelling of the novel? Do you think The First Desire could take place in the present day, or do the characters and experiences seem rooted in their time?
10. What impact does the war have on the relationship between Abe and Irving? In your view, do the similarities between father and son increase over time? If so, how? Why?
11. After Abe’s death, Sadie found “the world for a time drained of color.” How do you think the characters view, deal with, and accept death? Why does Abe force his family to sit shivah for Goldie? Why do you think Goldie feels that “the living die and the dead surreptitiously live”?
12. In your view, why does Goldie select Irving to renew her contact with the family? Why does Irving fail to tell the rest of his family that he has heard from Goldie? Would the interactions among the sisters have been different if they had learned about Goldie’s fate earlier in the novel?
13. What do you think Goldie has gained, and what has she lost, by leaving her family? What distinguishes her new life from the lives of her siblings in Buffalo? In what ways does her decision to go to California illuminate the social mores and era presented in the novel? Consider, for example, the passages describing her departure and her reactions to California.
14. Jo, Celia, and Sadie all conjure up explanations for Goldie’s disappearance. In light of what you learn about Goldie by the end of the book, which sister seems to see her most clearly?
15. Discuss the theme of betrayal in The First Desire. How is each of the following a betrayal–the mother’s death; the father taking a lover; Goldie’s disappearance; Irving taking on a non-Jewish identity; Jo getting Lucia fired? Describe some of the other examples of betrayal in the novel. What are the causes and consequences? Is silence a betrayal?
16. Reisman separates the sections of the novel by dates, rather than simply presenting a straightforward running narrative. How does this structure affect your experience of the book? How might it influence your understanding of the characters? The way the plot unfolds?
17. Niagara Falls is referred to throughout the book, beginning with the suggestion that Goldie might have gone there on the day she disappears. What meanings does Niagara Falls seem to have for these characters? For you as a reader? (Does it suggest, at certain moments, a sense of foreboding? A sense of freedom? Several possibilities at once?)
18. The title of the novel is taken from Goldie, who says, “…the first desire was to be with her mother, the second to be invisible.” Is this relevant to Goldie alone, or do other members of the family seek invisibility in one way or another? Is invisibility, or escape, a way of dealing with insecurities? With failure? Is it linked to love? Protection? Other emotions or impulses?