First Love and Other Sorrows Summary
by Aaron Roy Weintraub

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First Love and Other Sorrows Summary

(Masterpieces of American Literature)

The title story of First Love and Other Sorrows takes place in the springtime when its narrator is sixteen years old and is dealing with a budding sexuality. He lives with his adoptive mother and his twenty-two-year-old sister, who seems as unhappy with her looks as the narrator is with his. She complains that her face is too round and that she does not look good in suits. The brother has peach fuzz and admits to shaving every three days; his mother and sister think he needs to shave more often. His adoptive father is dead.

The boy’s mother warns him against playing too hard and about getting overheated in the springtime. This admonition seems to be a veiled warning that the heat of youthful sexuality can be as dangerous as the heat of April, which is the usual metaphor for youth. The boy certainly seems to feel that such is the case. The sister is dating Sonny Bruster, who, as the son of one of the town’s leading bankers, is a good catch in the eyes of the mother. The romance between the two of them is not without problems; at one point, they stop seeing each other for several weeks. They get back together, however, and are engaged before the story ends.

The boy feels like an intruder in his mother’s house. She makes it clear that she cooks only because he is there; were it only the two women, they would eat sandwiches. The family situation is not a hostile one, but little love is apparent. The mother, a controlling woman, is vitally concerned with having her daughter marry someone prosperous. She had known genteel living in a large house overlooking the Mississippi River, but the house was lost during a financial crisis, and she was reduced to living in more humble surroundings.

The boy’s best friend is a schoolmate named Preston, who is shy, and—although the same age—more heavily bearded than the narrator. He is unimaginative and suspicious of imagination in others. The narrator is the aesthete, and Preston is the scientist who aspires to a career in physics.

Preston is the narrator’s safe, dependable friend, with whom he enjoys athletics and double dating. Another boy in the school, however, is much more enticing. Joel Bush is so handsome that the other students can scarcely bear to look at him. He is described in ecstatic terms, but he is so perfect that people avoid him and admire him from a safe distance. Brodkey’s effusive description of Joel may be read within a homosexual context, particularly when compared with his description of Orra Perkins in “Innocence.”

One day, Joel reveals to the narrator that he had sex with an older woman the night before. He describes the event as masturbation with bells. Juxtaposed to this sexual revelation is a strenuous physical workout on the school’s playing field, which serves as a sex substitute for many budding adolescents. The narrator spends an evening with Eleanor Cullen, who previously had had an uneventful date with Joel. Eleanor reveals that she does not regard herself as a basically happy person, which echoes the narrator’s earlier statement that he is not popular because he is too gloomy.

The story ends with the narrator’s sister engaged to Sonny Bruster and wearing an heirloom engagement ring that she does not like. Her mother is in the kitchen writing letters to send to all of her relatives, telling them of the engagement. The boy and his sister come into the kitchen, and the mother offers to heat up some soup for them. Her eyes fill with tears of emotion, and the three embrace and kiss.

This story is typical of Brodkey’s early work and gives a strong indication of the course his later work would follow. Nothing much happens in the story except that an adolescent boy makes tentative moves toward growing into manhood. He is uncertain and fearful of rejection and therefore cannot approach Joel. The closest he can get to him is to be friends with Eleanor. The story deals with situations and emotions but has little plot. The descriptions are accurate and...

(The entire section is 1,173 words.)