It's July 1929. Sadie lounges, enjoying a serene morning in her own home --- until her brother Irving arrives with the news that their sister has disappeared. The missing sister, Goldie, was the oldest sibling who ran the household after the death of their mother and also worked at the library. She always had been so reliable.
No one can explain why or how Goldie vanished. Yet the family members living at home hesitate when Sadie questions them about her last days there. One of the sisters, Jo, doesn't tell Sadie her own viewpoint concerning Goldie's disappearance. Goldie had been wandering and dreamy. In Jo's opinion, a man was surely involved. She can't quite decide how to feel about her sister's absence: is fear the appropriate emotion? Jo longs for her mother, who would have known the proper frame of mind for the family mystery.
Their father has taken up with a woman of whom no one (except Irving) approves. The father's reaction to Goldie's absence horrifies the remaining family members. He insists on sitting shivah for her, although it is a declaration of her death, which has never been proven. According to Sadie, "You can't erase a person, though her father in his rage will try." When the time comes, the sisters excuse themselves from the ceremony. Instead of donating Goldie's clothing to charity, the women hide them in the attic.
The plot follows the family from 1929 to 1950, with flashbacks lending back-story. One by one, the family members' stories are told, back and forth, braiding them together into intricate patterns of personalities and relationships. Sadie has the affluent life she has always wanted, with two daughters and an attentive husband. Yet she wonders what she's missing. Jo falls in love with a female co-worker, and into heartbreak. Irving, the sisters' only brother, has a huge secret he guards from his sisters and father. Meanwhile, Irving continues to pilfer from his family in order to gamble until he heads off to war. The atrocities he views affect Irving strongly, yet he returns to his old ways when he comes home from the war. And sister Celia is as odd as she always has been --- following handsome strangers, making scenes in public places, and refusing to bathe. We also learn the bittersweet story of their father's lover, Lillian, who is an integral character in the story.
Debut novelist Nancy Reisman paints gorgeously haunting descriptions: a man's overcoat is "like an unbuttoned pelt"; a father has gone to work during a family tragedy "leaving a pale gray blur in his place." The characters and their stories are subtle and real. Just as in real life, there are no stereotyped personalities and no overly neat conclusions. The story draws readers in until they feel absorbed into the Cohen family. This engrossing and satisfying novel is the perfect companion for a rainy afternoon in front of the fire while sipping tea.
Reviewed by Terry Miller Shannon on January 22, 2011
The First Desire