Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!
The First Desire Reading Guide
The questions, discussion topics, and suggestions for further reading that
follow are designed to enhance your groups exploration 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 postWorld War II years, Reisman illuminates as well the
social and political milieu of mid-twentieth-century America.
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
itselfits structure and atmospheretake on particular meanings for the
family members or for you as a reader?
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 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. In your reading, 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?
What do Sadies 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?
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?
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?
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
Abes children would have changed? If so, in what ways?
How does Irvings 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?
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?
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?
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?
After Abes 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?
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 Goldies fate earlier in the novel?
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.
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 see her most clearly?
Discuss the theme of betrayal in The First Desire. How is each of
the following a betrayalthe mothers death; the father taking a lover;
Goldies 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?
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?
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?)
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?
Margaret Atwood, The Blind Assassin; Allegra Goodman, Kaaterskill
Falls; Jane Hamilton, The Book of Ruth; Sue Miller, Family
Pictures; Philip Roth,I Married a Communist; Richard Russo, Empire
Falls; Jane Smiley, A Thousand Acres; Anne Tyler, Dinner at the
Unless otherwise stated, this discussion guide is reprinted with the permission of Anchor Books.
Any page references refer to a USA edition of the book, usually the trade paperback version, and may vary in other editions.
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