It is 1929, just before the economic collapse that would herald the Great Depression. The Cohen family lives in Buffalo, New York, where Goldie's father, Abe, a widower, owns a jewelry store and is beginning what will be a lengthy romantic liaison with Lillian Schumacher. He has four daughters and one son, all in early adulthood at the beginning of the novel.
Although Reisman's characters will move through a large piece of American history before the book ends in 1950, it is safe to say that Goldie's disappearance is the major plot device around which this novel turns. Through her absence we enter the lives and emotions of her sisters, Sadie, Jo, and Celia, and Irving, her brother, who has raised irresponsibility to a quiet art. Inside the emotional lives of these people, this novel finds its power.
And The First Desire is a very powerful book, despite or perhaps because of its deceptively quiet presentation. There is nothing flashy about the action or about the conflicts. Sadie is competent and admirable. Jo appears tough but soon isolates herself in her own tiny world. Celia is damaged and uncertain, someone for whom the cliché "differently abled" certainly applies. Irving is a small-time liar and cheat, who will try, not really successfully, to charm his way through life.