October 21, 2004
‘First’ an Atypical New York Story
A brother announces to his sister that another sister has vanished, as "The First Desire" (Pantheon) opens. Nancy Reisman's highly-praised novel is unusual in many ways, from its premise to the quality of writing to its setting. She follows the lives of the Cohen family, from the Depression to the years following World War II, not on the Lower East Side or in Brooklyn, but in a stately neighborhood in Buffalo, N.Y.
Sentence by sentence, this is an exquisite story of family. Reisman writes with assuredness and tenderness, as the story unfolds serially from five perspectives: three of the four Cohen sisters, the brother and their father's mistress.
The Jewish Week spoke with Reisman by telephone at her home in Ann Arbor, where she teaches in the graduate creative writing program at the University of Michigan. She's upbeat and both modest and grateful about the book's strong reception. She speaks of her own family -- her long-married parents and three siblings -- with a depth of love and connection. Clearly, she understands the themes she writes of -- the unbreakable though fragile ties among siblings; devotion to parents, beyond their lives; how a family is much more than anything any one of them might have created. But her own family sounds far less eccentric than the characters she has created.
When Goldie, the oldest Cohen sister, disappears one July day, there is no sign whether she has left town or perhaps tragically fell into nearby Niagara Falls. The book's title is first mentioned in reference to Goldie, who was born in Russia and came to America with her mother in 1901, rejoining her father who had come earlier and settled in Buffalo. For Goldie, "the first desire was to be with her mother, the second to be invisible." The title reverberates through the novel in all sorts of yearnings -- for love and affection, for rootedness, for something that feels like happiness, for freedom -- as the characters affirm their ties to the family and also seek to vanish and be independent of it.
Although Rebecca Cohen, the late family matriarch is absent through the novel, she has profound influence on all of the characters, sending "ripple effects through their lives," as Reisman explains.
The novelist captures the small moments of life -- a grown daughter's pleasure when her father calls her by a childhood endearment, the silent understandings between sisters as one washes the hair of another -- and the emotional static that erupts in families.
Although Reisman shifts the storytelling angle among characters, she keeps the narrative in the third person. Of Goldie, who loves books and resents the responsibilities she has for caring for the others, she writes, "She found that slices of herself were missing and she imagines her body to be a variegation of solid stripes and empty space, like a wrought-iron fence."
Sadie is the most grounded, the only sibling to marry and have children, who maintains a Jewish household and whose life is most connected to the Jewish community; she secretly refuses her father's command to sit shiva for Goldie.
"You can't erase a person," she says.
Celia is impaired and needs the family more than any of the others. Irving loves to play cards and go out with women, often invading the petty cash box in his father's jewelry store and turning to Sadie to repay his debts. For him, the name Irving is a cloak that doesn't fit and he takes on a non-Jewish-sounding name, even sending himself postcards to a secret address as if to solidify that identity. Jo is perhaps the saddest of the group, trapped in many ways, suspicious of people and regretful of her own sharp speech; she glimpses happiness in her short-lived affection for another woman but ultimately hides her desires.
The patriarch Abe, who is bossy, elegant, ignoring of his children but still lovable, doesn't get his own chapters, but Lillian -- the sister of his best friend, Moshe, whom he begins to date while his wife is very sick, to the dismay of his children -- has a voice.
There's much that is timely in Reisman's depiction of war, when America is "perched on the brink of emergency and war seeps "into the smallest corners of life." Irving joins the Army, Celia volunteers at the Red Cross and a friend of the family persists in writing letters to her relatives in Poland, which are never answered, but the letters themselves are a kind of prayer.
When the war breaks out, Sadie's daughter is mastering shoes and socks.
"It had been a relief to discuss socks, shoes after socks, the matching up of shoes and feet, finessing knots and bows.... For a time, Sadie tried to acknowledge Europe only after the girls were asleep, but even the attempt seemed absurd. There were temple meetings, committees for fundraising, committees for refugees; and the weekly arrival of worsening news she learned to hold in her mind, silently, while drawing the alphabet in huge blue letters and slicing apples to demonstrate fractions."
For Reisman, one of the challenges of writing the novel was writing about the war in a way that acknowledged the power of what was happening, yet stayed within the context of the family dynamics she was examining.
"I think it's a hard balancing act for all of us," Reisman comments. "Protecting the things we cherish most and without tuning out the world."
Reisman, 43, grew up just outside of Buffalo and left to attend college. Although she hasn't lived there since, she visits several times a year. Her parents grew up in Buffalo and her grandparents spent much of their lives there as well. She writes of a time before she was born, "a time planted in my imagination when I was young. A sort of lost world," she explains, adding, "I miss the storytellers who told me about it."
The author of an award-winning collection of stories, "House Fires," she writes in part from memory. As she explains, "it has to do with a sense of place. I mean the landscape, the sky, the way the wind comes in off the lake. I think that has really marked my sensibility. Here and there, bits and pieces of my own life are woven in, how a room in a house might have felt to me."
Of the Cohen siblings, Sadie emerges as the most responsible, although she finds that being wife, mother, sister and daughter can be overwhelming. For her, "There's always a feeling of hurry, of catching up, only glimpsing each moment before it shifts."
Reisman reflects on mothers as "the secret heart of this book. The loss of one's mother -- either through absence and illness or death, or through a withholding of love -- seems to me profoundly heartbreaking," she says.
The book includes other mothers, too -- Lillian's mother, Sadie's mother-in-law, other women in the community -- some of whom withhold love, or mix it up with anger and disappointment.
"I'm also interested in the ways that the characters learn to care for and to some degree parent each other, how their incorporate their mothers' best legacies into their own adult live," she said.