THE FIRST DESIRE

By Nancy Reisman. Pantheon. 310 pp. $24

Disappearing girls have figured in some of the most haunting novels of recent years, from The Virgin Suicides to The Lovely Bones. What happens, though, when the girl is not dead or abducted but has chosen to vanish? This is the premise of Nancy Reisman's gorgeous first novel, which follows a Buffalo family over the course of two decades after the day Goldie, the oldest of five siblings, "went shopping and didn't come back."

After their mother died, a year before the start of the novel, Goldie assumed the role of matriarch. Her disappearance sets off a low vibration of disturbance among the rest of the family, who slowly become unmoored in her absence. Celia is "touched" -- mentally ill, retarded or a bit of both. The responsibility for her care now falls to Jo, who chokes with resentment toward her sister for closing off her own means of escape: "There was a hidden doorway, and Goldie found it first, walked through and shut the door." Irving, the restless baby of the family, approaches the edge of serious trouble while never quite crossing it, stealing petty cash from their father's store to cover his gambling debts and masquerading as a traveling businessman to pick up women. Meanwhile, Sadie, the only sibling to have married and left the childhood home, must face becoming a mother and bringing up her two daughters in the absence of her own beloved mother and sister.

"What did they do that kept [Goldie] so far she'd pass for dead?" Sadie asks herself. This unanswerable question hangs over the book's rich, melancholy atmosphere, a continuing testament to the paradoxical ease with which family ties unravel. What is finally most shocking about Goldie's desertion is how easy it is simply to walk away. When Goldie herself eventually resurfaces -- to the reader, if not yet to her family -- she has moved to California to begin a new life, working as a waitress and living alone, unencumbered by domestic attachments. She remembers the family home, even when empty, as filled with "a low buzzing . . . a pervasive, staticky hum," and trying to "imagine the buzzing and family voices as water; in water she could hear the beginnings of silence." Even afternoons with her lover, a piano teacher, offered only temporary relief from the tedious pains of domesticity. "What he knew was the ecstasy of lovemaking, piano sonatas," Goldie thinks when he asks her to marry him. "The quiet of his father's house, not the chaos and chafing and illness delivered with infants, or the ways men wander."

If the primary human desire, as Goldie muses in a flashback before her desertion, is for familial closeness, the longing to flee that embrace runs a close second. In the world of these characters, no intimacy, sexual or familial, is powerful enough to resist the forces that push people apart. In one of the book's most agonizing episodes, Jo becomes infatuated with another secretary in the office where she works and brutally sabotages the woman's work after learning that she is engaged. Irving, serving in the Army in England during World War II, falls in love with a local girl and promises to marry her, then deserts her without a word of farewell. Ironically, the closest the novel comes to a vision of enduring love is the relationship between Abe Cohen, the siblings' father, and Lillian Schumacher, the "tart" (as the sisters call her) with whom he cheated on their mother.

Lillian, during sex, likes to picture "her fingers slipping past a man's ribs, palm cupping his heart," an image that perfectly describes the way Reisman delves to the innermost core of her characters. This saga of isolation unfolds in a narrative that allows the reader the utmost proximity to the strangers within it. Roaming among their interior monologues, the novel provides an up-close view of the characters' own estrangement from one other, their misunderstandings and disconnections. At times Reisman's tone has a directness and a sensuality reminiscent of Virginia Woolf, from Sadie's domestic peace -- "Here is her coffee, the morning paper; in the back hall there are red geraniums to plant in a window box" -- to Lillian's bold carnality. This approach does have certain limitations: When the war in Europe is introduced in the background, the characters feel too self-involved for their anxiety to be believable. But otherwise the novel's psychological realism is impeccable.

In today's post-Oprah book market, first novels tend to provoke fear in the hearts of publishers, who respond by marketing them too aggressively or not at all. The First Desire, impressively emblazoned with blurbs from heavyweights such as Anna Quindlen and Ann Patchett, is a symptom of the former. The inevitable comparisons evoked by such efforts to create buzz do Reisman no service. Her intensely affecting and thought-provoking work easily stands on its own. *

Ruth Franklin is a senior editor at the New Republic.