Relationships are complex things—especially those of the familial sort. Defining yourself within and apart from parents and siblings can be a life's work, at turns painful and liberating. This is one of the themes that Nancy Reisman, an award-winning writer of short fiction, explores in her beautiful debut novel, The First Desire.
During a midday phone call from Ann Arbor, where Reisman teaches creative writing at the University of Michigan, the author discusses home, family and the ties that bind. Her manner is easy, and the voice that floats over the line sounds both soft-spoken and assured.
Though she currently resides in Ann Arbor, Reisman's home, and the setting of her novel, is upstate New York. Reisman is acutely aware of the pull of home the gravitational force that it exerts on our lives. "Isn't that true of places where you grow up? I think the mark they make on you seems so distinctive, even compared to other places where I've lived for long stretches of time," she says.
It is the tension, the paradox the longing for home, and the longing to leave that she writes about so eloquently, and with such keen insight. "It's a huge conflict, certainly for [the] characters, but I think it's something that a lot of people experience at one moment or another in their lives," she says.
The novel begins on a glorious summer morning in Buffalo. The year is 1929. Sadie Cohen, now the married Sadie Feldstein, is enjoying the quiet and solitude of the early hour until her brother Irving arrives with some disturbing news—their eldest sister, Goldie, has disappeared. With this event, we are drawn into the life of the Cohen family, and into the life of the changing city itself. Reisman brilliantly evokes another era as she takes us through the Great Depression, World War II and its aftermath. She tells the story through different perspectives—those of the Cohen sisters, their brother Irving and their father's mistress—and forms these into a seamless narrative. That she accomplishes this ambitious feat so successfully is a testament to her talent.
Reisman says she chose this period in which to set her novel, in part, because it's a moment when the family and the collective unit was very, very important. The family matriarch has already died when The First Desire opens, but her presence looms large over the novel and in the lives of those she left behind.
"I think the mothers are really the secret heart of the book," she says. Reisman is quick to add that, although men have an important role as fathers, she's interested in "how [the maternal bond] shapes peoples' lives."
Reisman has a strong relationship with her own mother, like her mother before her. Perhaps, then, this closeness is something inherited, passed down through generations. "Whatever the reason, it's something that has been really vital in my own life," says Reisman. She is interested in how women negotiate relationships "with their mothers, their relationships with their daughters, with their sons, all of these family relationships . . . and the daily tragedies of the lack of connection. In some ways the power of those relationships is mysterious, but it's undeniable."
The life of a city fascinates Reisman perhaps as much as her characters' lives. The Buffalo Reisman knew in the 1970s has suffered since its time of economic prosperity earlier in the 20th century. In order to create an accurate portrait of the era, Reisman spent time in the Buffalo area, visiting public libraries and historical societies, reading newspapers, menus and the city pages (phone directories of the day) and studying photographs. She also interviewed people who knew the city at that time.
"Though the novel takes place in another time, the themes are universal. The characters are in part bound by social mores of the time and the place, but they also transcend them. That mix of continuity and change is something that I'm really interested in exploring and I don't know that it can ever be definitively nailed down. I think it's something that shifts."
Which brings us to the title, The First Desire, and the implications it has for Reisman's characters. She illustrates desire in its many forms—the longing to be known and understood, sexual desire, the wish for a life not led. The title, says Reisman, "does have all these other resonances . . . I do have that association to a kind of maternal connection or familial connection and a kind of idyllic one. I think for Goldie, it's the sort of fantasy of being alone with her mother and the happiness of that and the peace of that. That's the one that's most powerful for me."
Reisman may be a first-time novelist, but she's an acclaimed author of short fiction; her collection House Fires won the 1999 Iowa Short Fiction Award, and her work has also appeared in several anthologies, including Best American Short Stories 2001. When we ask if writing a novel presents a unique challenge, Reisman laughs. "Yes. The simple answer is yes. The challenge was simply scale, working with so many characters, such a span of time."
Reisman says she joked with friends, "Okay, the next novel is going to be one point of view: My Summer Vacation." Whatever follows, readers will be clamoring for it after a taste of Reisman's remarkable first novel. In luminous, unsparing prose she allows us to inhabit the inner world of her characters, experiencing their moments of joy and the way old wounds can inhabit the current moment. She understands the effect of things gone unsaid and that we all are made of many selves, some secreted from view. Reisman knows that home, though often sweet, can be sorrowful, too, and that our family relationships inform who we are, are bound up in the process by which we come to know ourselves.
Katherine Wyrick lives in Little Rock, Arkansas.