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The First Desire

The First Desire

by Reisman

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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


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.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"The First Desire is both lovely and heartbreaking." –The New York Times“A debut of luminous, distinctive quality. . . . This is a writer quietly taking her own bold course, and to travel with her as she does is a joy." –The Boston Globe
“Haunting. . . . Reisman's genius [is having] produced a book that generates its own world and holds the reader captive, willingly, to its landscape. Reisman creates this miracle through the power of her writing.” –San Francisco Chronicle“Only fiction can feel as real as this—and only in the right hands. . . . You needn’t be from Buffalo to be swept away by The First Desire. You need only be from a family.” –USA Today"A book of rhythms and reveries . . . rich in atmosphere. . . . The First Desire is a mystery story, left unsolved because the mystery is identity itself." –The New York Times Book Review“A continuing testament to the paradoxical ease with which family ties unravel. . . . Intensely affecting and thought-provoking.” –Washington Post Book World
“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

“A triumph. . . . [Reisman] proves herself Virginia Woolf’s equal in sketching how interior vistas can collide with exterior limits in women’s lives. The First Desire is a marvelous testament to how family can both sustain and destroy us, a delicate dance through the family minefields, written in language both limpid and wise. . . . We will not have room to say enough [about] the wonder of Reisman’s prose.” –Detroit Free Press
“Intense and moving. . . . Aside from the grace of the writing, The First Desire astonishes most in the intimacy it grants us with five fully realized characters.” –Atlanta Journal Constitution

“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 (editor’s choice)
“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
“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
“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.”

“Reisman’s hypnotic prose makes her . . . characters live. And her sympathy and wealth of detail make the Cohens’ world our own: specific, inescapably flawed, unpredictably meaningful and very, very real.” –People

“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

Ruth Franklin
In today's post-Oprah book market, first novels tend to provoke fear in the hearts of publishers, who respond by marketing them too aggressively or not at all. The First Desire, impressively emblazoned with blurbs from heavyweights such as Anna Quindlen and Ann Patchett, is a symptom of the former. The inevitable comparisons evoked by such efforts to create buzz do Reisman no service. Her intensely affecting and thought-provoking work easily stands on its own.
— The Washington Post
Janet Maslin
The First Desire is both lovely and heartbreaking in its vision of family ties at their most inevitable. "She has on this earth one mother," the book says of Lillian and her punishing parent, "a mother she wishes to forget, whose love is the color of bruises and who will, if you ignore her, haunt you into the next world." Ms. Reisman's power to haunt does not stretch quite that far, but it is formidable. It extends from the anxiety and uncertainty of loss, through the everyday wear and tear of family friction, to the reaffirmation of coming home.
— The New York Times
Publishers Weekly
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. Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
The second quarter of the 20th century marks the period when the five Cohen children step into their highly individuated and stylized worlds. Sadie is already Sadie Feldstein, newly married to a dentist. Jo's moodiness is obvious but hasn't yet reached the riptides of anger and meanness that develop as her personality evolves across the years. Celia is not altogether normal, but her descent doesn't seem as precipitous as Jo's. Goldie leaves Buffalo almost at the outset of the story, disappearing out West, dead to their father. And the only brother, Irving, toys with his identity: gigolo, WASP, gambler, soldier, son. As Reisman constructs the family timeline against carefully limned settings, replete with Buffalo neighborhoods and four seasons of intense weather, each sibling's viewpoint vouches for the accuracy of the others', although it seems that this is the only aspect of life on which the siblings would agree. Sadie values fine appearance, fine feelings, social security, and her ability to cope with her odd relatives. Jo allows her longing for a woman at her workplace to fester until it becomes a rotten part of her outlook on life. Celia refuses to wash, to take responsibility for more than two meals in a row, to acknowledge grown-up issues such as the reading of her father's will. Goldie travels back from California, 20 years after leaving home, not when their father dies but when Celia has a stroke. Irving womanizes across so many years that when he decides to marry, he can't figure out how to move beyond the first date with the apparently right woman. Reisman controls all these seething emotions like a juggler with flaming sticks: each sibling blazes forth by turn, then fades intothe periphery as the next one's story is launched. This is domestic drama in every sense of those two words, set just far enough back in time that the details of personality and culture can be examined with some clinical distance, a distance that heightens the emotional tug of the Cohens on their reader, rather than dampening it. KLIATT Codes: A--Recommended for advanced students and adults. 2004, Random House, Anchor, 310p., Ages 17 to adult.
—Francisca Goldsmith
Library Journal
In 1930s Buffalo, young Goldie disappears-and her family falls apart. A highly touted debut from the winner of the 1999 Iowa Short Fiction Award. Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
A Buffalo family personifies quiet desperation in this first novel by Iowa Short Fiction Award winner Reisman (House Fires, 1999). Abraham, a dour jeweler, is the widower-patriarch of the Cohen family, who occupy a rambling house on tree-lined Lancaster Street, a powerfully traditional Jewish home that Abraham's four daughters and one son struggle to escape from with varying degrees of success. Ponderous, incantatory prose and painstaking attention to mundane domestic detail, not to mention much interior musing, slow the narrative but deepen our identification with the characters' plights. Taking place in the 1930s and '40s, the story is told from the points of view of second daughter Sadie, who finds provisional refuge in marriage to a dentist; Goldie, the oldest, who immigrated late, with her mother, from Ukraine and is hence a stranger to her father; middle child Jo, a latent lesbian who rebels against being forced into the role of surrogate mother when Goldie bolts; and baby brother Irving, spoiled from birth, perennially torn between pressures to conform to the bourgeois values of a tight-knit Jewish community and the temptations of loose women and gambling. 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 as one after another they either accept their lot as family servants or act out their frustrations-in the meantime competing to escape the threatening, feared, and imprisoning burden of youngest daughter Celia's mental "peculiarity" (in the parlance of the day). Abe's mistress, Lillian, longs for marriage but is ultimately thankful for not having been dragged into the "morass" of the Cohenhousehold. Goldie's self-realization as she slips off the coils of her hometown is the only hopeful note in this grimly purposeful tale, where the fog of seething resentments (Niagara is a recurring symbol) can't entirely obscure sporadic gleams of familial love. Beneath the sepia tint, fully imagined lives. Author tour

Product Details

Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date:
Edition description:
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5.15(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.65(d)

Read an Excerpt

Chapter 1
Sadie 1929

July, the air grassy and mild, the sort of morn- ing Sadie waits for through the deep of Buffalo winters—mornings when it seems the city has surrendered to pleasure, to color and light. The harsh seasons are unimaginable. It’s as if this is how all of life is meant to be; as if drinking coffee and reading, gardening and casual piano playing, are her true occupations; as if cardinals flashing through the yards and the lush green of lawns and the maple’s fat leaves signal a permanent arrival. There are dahlias on the dining table, yellow and red, late strawberries. It’s still early, and Sadie has an hour, maybe two, before the day’s obligations intrude. The easy time, she thinks, the garden time. It’s something she associates with marriage—not the image of a couple in the garden, but the luxury of time alone at her own house. A luxury apparent only after her mother’s death, for which of course there is no compensation; but here is the second summer of such mornings, a time not yet occluded by children. She is twenty-four years old. Here is her coffee, the morning paper; in the back hall there are red geraniums to plant in a window box. The day is already bright, and she opens the living room drapes to the grass and pansies and oaks, and stops. There’s a man on her lawn: light brown suit, cigar in hand, facing away from her. Slim and coltish, an impatience in his stance, a lack of definition she usually associates with faces but here sees even in the posture, the lines of his shoulders. It’s Irving, her baby brother.

She glances at the new aqua-colored divan. The smallest of diversions, the look away. Close the curtains, she thinks, try again later. As if he will vanish. As if in ten minutes or an hour she’ll open the curtains onto a lawn empty of everything but border pansies and white petunias. Pretend the man on the lawn is instead a strolling neighbor pausing to relight his cigar. Because the cigar is out. But Irving makes no gesture to relight it, and he is in fact Irving: Sadie has only one brother and there is no mistaking him. Irving, whom she did not expect to see at all today, let alone at this hour, miles from the family house, dampening his shoes in the grass.

She wishes it were noon. She wishes he were standing in a coffee shop: she is often happy to see him in coffee shops, in the company of pastry. They could eat Danish and argue about new pictures, and Irving could imitate Chaplin, walking with fast small steps and tipping his hat to make her laugh. Irving on the lawn cannot be a good thing.

In her nightgown and robe she opens the front door. A spread of bright petunias hems the grass. “Irving?”

He turns, ashes the burnt-out cigar, checks the bottom of his shoes, as if he has stepped in something unpleasant. For an instant he’s a puzzled tan flamingo. And then he is Irving again, but he doesn’t look her in the eye. What? A death? He’d have spoken by now if it were, and no one’s been ill; there’s evasion in his manner, but not the air of drowning. That half-embarrassed staring at his shoe—it’s more than a small gambling debt. A girl in trouble? Which would be dreadful, of course, more than a little shocking, but not out of character.

“Have some coffee,” Sadie says. And now he glances at her—still the puzzled look—crosses the thick grass, wipes his shoes on the front mat, and follows her voice through the hall to the din- ing room. She seats him at the head of the table, makes a ritual of pouring the coffee, stirring in the sugar and cream. He could be like this when he was a boy, couldn’t he? Quiet, half-elsewhere until he’d had his breakfast, though at her table he fidgets, toying with his spoon until she sits down next to him.

“Haven’t seen Goldie, have you?” he says.

Goldie, their oldest sister. Goldie, who lives with him, with their father and the others. “Goldie?”

“Hasn’t been home for a while. Three days, actually.”

“What do you mean?”

“She went out—to shop, I think, or Celia thinks. She had a shopping bag with her, Celia said.”

“But Celia doesn’t know.”

“No. Celia doesn’t.”

“But she thinks Goldie went shopping.”

“Went shopping and didn’t come back.”

“Three days ago.”

“Well, two or three days.”

“Three days ago was Sunday. Where does she shop on Sunday? She’s never shopped on Sunday.”

“She went somewhere then. Maybe”—and here Irving hesitates—“maybe to the Falls.”

“And didn’t come back,” Sadie says.


“She often does go to the Falls,” Sadie says. “Often has.”

She pours more coffee, and focuses on the burgundy rings edging the saucers, the lips of the cups. One teaspoon of sugar for Irving. “Did she go to the Falls alone, or go shopping alone, whatever it is she did?”

He shrugs.

“No one called? No one came by for her?”

He fiddles with the unlit cigar. “I was out. I wasn’t there.”

“For three days you were out.”

“More or less,” he says. “Asleep when I was there.”

“But you must have noticed.”

“Goldie harps,” he says. “I avoid her.”

. . .

other members of the family are prone to disappearing, usually in absurd ways. Celia’s age means nothing—she’s twenty-seven but impulsive—and she turns up on docked streetcars and in speakeasies and sometimes at barbershops after following men. When Irving disappears, he returns whiskey-soaked. But Goldie’s smart, the oldest, the responsible one, thank God uncrazy: she does not disappear. Maybe she told Celia she’d visit a friend and Celia forgot. Or Celia changed the story, blending it with other stories, as is her habit. And anyway what does shopping mean? On a Sunday in a city bursting with Catholics, Lutherans, Episcopalians, a city bound to Sunday as the Lord’s day. True, Goldie might have gone to a Jewish shop, or to the bakery: Celia could mean bakery by shopping. Sometimes you have to unravel Celia’s code. Last year she called Goldie’s piano lessons harbor walks.

Sadie hesitates. The crisis has begun and will be with them now. But she can stir the sugar in slowly, she can wait and drink coffee and slowly dress and then the control of speed will end, all control will end. She’ll have to give over to this thing, this disappearance and its ripple effects, to the strangeness of her other sisters, to her father’s strong will or denial—you never know which it will be—to Irving wandering and returning, with rumor and inebriation. Give over and do what must be done. Do not speculate.

So she delays. The two of them, Sadie and Irving, sit leisurely over coffee, suspend the moment, as if nothing is happening and someone else is actually in charge. July. There’s a brief ease that feels lifted from childhood, when she and Irving seemed a family within the family—a relaxed, affectionate little clan apart from their older sisters. Yet even as Sadie recognizes the sensation it fades, and she offers him jam and toast, the newspaper to read while she dresses for the day.

Alone in her bedroom, she senses that the morning has already become brittle and opaque, as if coated with burned milk. There’s a bright fast ribbon of glee at the thought of canceling dinner with her mother-in-law, then the brittleness again.

it’s a couple of miles to the family house on Lancaster, far enough to be another neighborhood, another set of shops and parks and schools if not a distinctly separate life. But often returning to Lancaster causes time to slip, and she needs to be mindful: she needs the linen dress and gold clip earrings, the lipstick and heels and whatever else she can summon. From the outside, the Lancaster house is disarming, a solid, well-kept wood-frame, off-white, surrounded by clipped green lawn and old elms, the shade of maples and oaks and the clean-swept front porch suggesting restful lives. Today the house is quiet, the foyer, the hallway and front parlor slightly disordered, but only that. The smell of burnt coffee wafts in from the kitchen; the house is alive with the smell. Her sisters always seem to drink coffee burnt, as if there is no other way. As Sadie passes the shaded dining room, the dark woodwork and table and cabinets hushing the place into a season other than summer, Irving hangs behind her and it seems—is she imagining this?—that she might turn and find herself alone.

“Where are they?” she says.

Irving’s examining his wing tips again. “The store. Papa’s at the store.”

She pictures her father—impeccable in a light brown suit, his dark shoes and spectacles and pale forehead shining in the heat, salt-and-pepper mustache exactingly trimmed—checking velvet-lined jewelry cases for dust, squinting at smudges on the glass. “For how long?”

“He expects me there later.”

“He opened for the day?” But her father has done as much at other times, worse times, leaving a pale gray blur in his place. From the parlor there’s a glint of orange, which travels in Sadie’s direction: Celia’s cat, slinking through the hall, now sniffing at Sadie’s pumps. “And Jo? What happened to Jo?”

Irving doesn’t answer. The orange cat presses against Sadie, rubbing itself across her shin, turning, rubbing itself the other way. This is distracting: a tingling runs up Sadie’s leg to the rest of her, pleasant and more pleasant and then unnerving, that strong tingling and the cat rubbing itself and loudly purring.

From the kitchen there’s a clinking sound and the plash of water pouring into water. “Celia?” Sadie calls. She makes her way past the closets to the back stairwell and the kitchen, the cat closely escorting her. There are white daisies in a water glass on the enamel tabletop, squares of light through thick-paned windows; garden soil trails along the floor to the back entry and the porch. Celia’s at the sink, scrubbing a saucepan, flecks of oatmeal sticking to her wrists. Her face is a clear white oval, eyes hazel and unrevealing, her dress pink cotton, unfamiliar, oddly girlish. Today she’s combed her hair.

“Jo’s at work,” Celia says.

“When did she leave?” Sadie says.

“The usual time.”

Both of them, then, Jo off to her secretarial job, their father to the jewelry store, as if nothing is wrong, and Goldie will reappear any moment, ready to look after the house and check in with Celia. It’s tempting, she admits, to take their behavior as reassurance and assume that Irving has misread the signs, but she knows better: this is not the sort of thing Irving misreads.

“Let’s sort this out,” Sadie says. “Let’s sit down and sort this out.”

Celia dries her hands, picks up the orange cat. Vera, she calls it. She is unnerved, you can see by the way she clings to the cat, the way she sidles up to Sadie and eyes the kitchen door.

“What’s this about Goldie shopping?” Sadie says.

Celia talks at the windows and the door—or maybe it’s to the yard beyond, the garden where she spends her summer. “She went shopping.”

“On Sunday?”

Yes. Probably. Or Monday. No, Celia can’t pinpoint the day for sure, it’s possible that she saw Goldie again after the shopping, but that’s not what she remembers. She does not know what Goldie shopped for. And she does not know where else Goldie might go—but here Celia refocuses on the floor.

And Sadie knows better than to expect answers from Celia now, with that look and the cat purring against her chest. She’s too distracted, and even when she isn’t she’s still ruled by impulse, a tendency to lie. But you have to make the effort.

“What was she wearing?” Sadie says.

“Brown skirt, white blouse.”

“She was wearing a brown skirt and a white blouse?”

Meet 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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