Summary and book reviews of The First Desire by Nancy Reisman

The First Desire

by Nancy Reisman

The First Desire
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  • First Published:
    Sep 2004, 320 pages
    Paperback:
    Aug 2005, 320 pages

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About this Book

Book Summary

Set in Buffalo, New York in the 1930s and '40s, 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.



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.

Chapter 1
Sadie 1929

July, the air grassy and mild, the sort of morning 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...

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 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.


Reader's Guide

  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 ...
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Reviews

Media Reviews

Janet Maslin - The New York Times

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.

Vogue

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.

Publishers Weekly

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. 

Kirkus Reviews

[A] 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 Blurb Anna Quindlen
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.

Author Blurb Ann-Marie MacDonald, author of Fall on Your Knees and The Way the Crow Flies
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.

Author Blurb Julia Glass, author of Three Junes
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.

Author Blurb Ann Patchett, author of Bel Canto
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.

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