Desert Isle Keeper
The First Time
While reading this book, I began to bawl like a baby after being shouted at by my daughter regarding a pair of socks. As if that weren’t enough, by the time I finished The First Time, I was crying so loudly I scared the cat.
Joy Fielding, whose earlier works are thrillers, has, in The First Time, written an amazing work of fiction. The plot concerns a woman diagnosed with ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease) who discovers that the worst year of her life may also be the best year of her life.
When the book begins, 36-year-old Mattie is fantasizing about killing her husband Jake because, once again, he is having an affair. Jake and Mattie married 16 years ago when she was pregnant with their daughter Kim. Jake had his first affair when Kim was still a toddler. Mattie has always known about these affairs and believes Jake knows she knows; he doesn’t. So when he’s preparing to leave her for his newest girlfriend, after Mattie returns home following a car accident, Mattie beats him to the punch and kicks him out.
Mattie’s accident sets the stage for medical tests which reveal she has ALS and will most likely die within a year or two. As devastating as this news is, Mattie initially refuses to accept it, only to be confronted almost daily by her failing body. Jake then moves back into the house to care for her and help care for their daughter. Having him home, though, is like torture. Mattie does not want the end of her existence to come with a man who only pities her. Her resentment and desperation lead her to sleep with an attractive man who has been coming on to her for some time. There’s a beautifully symmetrical set of scenes in which Jake is with his lover, Mattie is with hers, and Kim, whose relationship to her father is strained at best, is losing her virginity as well. On the heels of this tableau, Mattie gives Jake an ultimatum: “Either pretend you love me or get out.” Being a fundamentally good person, he decides to pretend, the result of which is that he finally gives of himself to Mattie, revealing things about his painful past he’d never before been able to share.
Reading a book in which death is a foregone conclusion can be a daunting prospect, particularly for romance readers who look for HEA endings. Is it possible, however, for a different sort of happy ending, for there to be peace and love and tranquility when there is also death? More specifically, will Mattie and Jake find peace for themselves? Is it possible for them to find the love they missed during their marriage? How will he and Kim carry on when Mattie’s gone?
Answers to all these questions are provided in The First Time. Author Fielding has crafted a novel with wonderful characterizations. Mattie and Jake are three-dimensional people who seem real; they don’t always do the right thing, and some of the right things they do get them into trouble. Jake in particular is a fascinating character; it is a rare book when a “player” of his magnitude isn’t doomed to villainy (or at least divorce). Because he has never shared himself with Mattie, she doesn’t really know him, and through the changes her illness brings to both of them, we learn right along with Mattie why he has shut himself off from true happiness.
I urge you to read The First Time if you are looking for a well-written, bittersweet story of love and redemption. As for me, I haven’t cried this much since reading Kathryn Lynn Davis’ last release, Somewhere Lies the Moon – if you know me at all, that’s a compliment of the highest order.