Synopses & Reviews
When Sadie looks out her window and sees her bother standing on the front lawn she knows he can't bring good news. Fidgeting over coffee with sugar and cream he explains: Their sister is gone. Three days earlier Goldie left to go shopping and she has not returned. With Goldie's disappearance as the catalyst, The First Desire takes us deep into the life of the Cohen family and Buffalo, New York, from the Great Depression to the years immediately following World War II. Shifting perspectives from siblings Sadie, Jo, Goldie, and Irving we learn of the secrets they have managed to keep hidden--and of Lillian, the beautiful woman their father took as a lover while his wife was dying. In this astonishing novel Reisman brings to life the love, grief, and desires that ultimately bind one family together.
1929. Buffalo, New York. A beautiful July day, the kind one waits for through the long, cold winters. Sadie Feldstein, nee 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.
"From the Hardcover edition.
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 First Desire
is both lovely and heartbreaking.” —The New York Times
The introduction, discussion questions, suggestions for further reading, and author biography that follow are designed to enhance your groups discussion of The First Desire, Nancy Reismans 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 the social and political milieu of mid-twentieth-century America.
1. The First Desire
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 the chapters work together to form a novel? The novel offers many of the characters perspectives and life experiences but doesnt offer the fathers view. Why do you think the author has chosen not to show Abes point of view? Similarly, Celia is the only Cohen sibling not given chapters of her own. Do Celias 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 Sadies conversations with Irving reveal 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,
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 Rebecca Cohens absence 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” [p. 143]? Had Lillian married Abe, would her relationships with Abes children be different? If so, how?
7. How does Irvings position as the only boy and the youngest child in the family affect his character? Do his sisters and his father influence 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” [p. 214]?
8. Is Goldie, in a similar way, marked by being the eldest 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 Abes death, Sadie found “the world for a time drained of color” [p. 288]. 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” [p. 305]?
12. 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 Goldies 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 the era presented in the novel? Consider, for example, the passages describing her departure and her reactions to California [i.e., pp. 77-82, 98-101].
14. Jo, Celia, and Sadie all conjure up explanations for Goldies disappearance. In light of what you learn about Goldie by the end of the book, which sister seems to understand her most clearly?