With a glowing review from Janet Maslin in The New York Times, and praise from high-profile authors such as Ann Patchett and Anna Quindlen, Nancy Reisman’s debut novel The First Desire (Anchor Books, 310 pp.) received the kind of attention every writer dreams of when it first appeared in 2004. It’s out in paperback this fall, just in time for Reisman’s arrival at Vanderbilt, where she will teach creative writing.
The First Desire has been aptly described as a “stealth novel.” It gently lures rather than pulls the reader into its world. From the first page it provides a quiet flow of mundane details (“There are dahlias on the dining table, yellow and red, late strawberries”) which finally accrete into a rich, more-bitter-than-sweet portrait of one family—the Cohens of Buffalo, N.Y., circa 1929-1950. Immigrant parents Abe and Rebecca and their five grown children (Goldie, Sadie, Jo, Celia and Irving) are ordinary by any outward measure: proprietors of a jewelry shop, solidly middle class, conventionally religious, tight-knit, troubled in ways that most families are troubled. But when eldest daughter Goldie (“the responsible one”) simply disappears one day, her loss acts as a sort of depth charge, bringing to the surface emotions and longings previously concealed.
The novel explores the ties between siblings with a richness and nuance that is unusual in family sagas. The patriarch Abe, though omnipresent, remains an opaque figure. Reisman focuses instead on each of the children in turn, using her remarkable stylistic skills to portray their inner demons and the fundamentally ambivalent feelings they have for each other. Each of them is driven by a unique pain—Sadie’s frustration with marriage and motherhood, Irving’s grandiosity and compulsiveness, Jo’s unacknowledged homosexuality, Celia’s irrational fears and childish confusion—but ultimately they all face the same conflict: the desire for acceptance and love within the family, and a simultaneous yearning to escape its stifling limitations.
Reisman has an extraordinary ability to evoke the inner lives of her characters, and to put seemingly irrational acts into a context of private emotion, as when she describes the fear that leads Irving to tell a momentous lie to Sadie. “She won’t look at him, as if he repulses her, it’s unbearable, the moment she turns away like that. And the loneliness seems to well larger again, he can feel himself adrift, splintering and drifting at once.” Reisman is less successful at creating a truly cohesive narrative. Traumatic memories are hinted at, then forgotten. World events figure in the story, yet their echoes within the characters’ emotional lives are largely ignored. Depression-era anti-Semitism and the Holocaust are mentioned, and three of the siblings make very deliberate attempts to conceal or escape their Jewishness, but Reisman lets this theme go unexplored. One takes away from the novel a sense of having read a collection of perfect but finally disconnected creations, a handful of brilliant gems waiting to be set into a piece of beautiful jewelry.
Nancy Reisman will read from and sign The First Desire at Davis-Kidd Booksellers on Nov. 14 at 6 p.m.