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The First Time

by Joy Fielding

Joy Fielding’s new novel holds some surprises for her fans, as she moves from the genre of suspense to that of romance. In The First Time, the author of Don’t Cry Now and Missing Pieces has concocted a disease-of-the-month love story that’s one step up from high-end popular romantic novels.
The story is set in Chicago, where Mattie Hart learns, almost simultaneously, of her husband’s latest infidelity and of her own terminal illness. Mattie has amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, more commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease; she and her husband Jake both had troubled childhoods that continue to plague them. Throw in their daughter, a confused and angry teenager (is there any other kind?), and a possessive other woman, and you have the recipe for trouble all around.
Terminal illnesses are difficult to write about, and adding a love story for good measure has become almost a cliché, yet Fielding makes The First Time an interesting read with details of the disease and its effects, both physical and psychological. While the narrative is at times sentimental, there are brief moments that delve deeply into the emotions of the characters, and these are very moving. Fielding handles the disparity between what her characters are saying and what they’re thinking and feeling with a sure hand, and gives enough details of their surroundings to make the novel very visual in its effect.
While occasional inept words and phrases introduce a discordant note – one character allows “her eyes to drift to a close” – the book is otherwise well written and enjoyable, if somewhat melodramatic. The theme shines through bright and strong: terminal illness clarifies what’s important in life.