Kathryn Harrison


(Reviewed by Jana L. Perskie OCT 30, 2005)

Envy by Kathryn Harrison

Kathryn Harrison's latest novel, Envy, opens with protagonist Will Moreland, a New York City psychoanalytic psychotherapist, about to attend his 25th college reunion. His wife Carole is adamant about not accompanying him, although he tries to tempt her with descriptions of the luxury hotel where he will be staying, the pool, excellent restaurants, room service, and pay-per-view. The fact is, Carole cannot cope with the inevitable questions that will be asked by strangers. Until three years ago the Morelands were a family of four. There were two children then, Samantha and Luke. Ten year-old Luke died in a tragic boating accident and both parents are still dealing with their grief.

Then there will be the comments and curiosity about Will's identical twin, another Cornell alumni, the famous Mitchell Moreland. Mitch, a world renown long-distance swimmer, is as well known a sports figure as Lance Armstrong or Tiger Woods. Unfortunately the athlete has been estranged from his family since Will's wedding. He left the reception shortly after delivering the traditional best man's toast to the bride and groom, and has not made contact with his relatives since - over ten years now. Although Will is not thrilled about discussing these private aspects of his life, his inquisitiveness about his fellow alumni of the class of '79 overcomes his reluctance to attend. He also wants to obtain some information from an old lover about something he had read in the recent alumni bios - something which is causing him great anxiety.

At the party Will strikes up a slightly flirtatious conversation with Elizabeth, the ex-girlfriend whom he has not seen in twenty-five years. He discovered that she has a daughter, now in her mid-twenties, and after doing the math realizes the baby was born a few months after the two broke up. Although Elizabeth married late in her pregnancy, Moreland cannot help but wonder if he is the father. Their encounter turns hostile when he requests a DNA sample - a strand of the daughter's hair to determine paternity. He leaves the festivities a day early and when he returns home does not mention the incident his wife.

Carol Moreland, a calm, serene woman, had always been open to discussing anything with Will. Her husband thinks of her as a woman who "seems at peace with life, with herself. Not like me." Since the death of their son, however, she has distanced from her husband both physically and emotionally. She used to be a passionate sexual partner, up for anything - not any more. Oddly, though Carole practices yoga and meditation, she is addicted to violent true crime books - so graphic that she hides them from her young daughter. She really does not want to discuss their problems, although Will, as a shrink who is his own favorite patient, longs to talk about and analyze their lack of communication, among other subjects. Actually, Will is something of a motor mouth, always ready to go on at length about his feelings, problems, dreams, the unconscious, etc.. He is really too analytical and over-intellectualizes his own difficulties. Moreland winds up going back into therapy with his training analyst, Daniel, a psychiatrist's psychiatrist who has worked with him before.

Moreland also talks frankly with his aging father, a retired veterinarian, who at seventy has become an artistic photographer - even exhibiting his work in a SoHo gallery. He is having an affair with a younger woman, with his wife's consent.

The primary reason Will goes back into analysis, is because he has begun to have violent and vivid sexual fantasies about every women he sees, including his patients, which makes it extremely difficult for him to function effectively in his therapeutic role. He is depressed. He also obsesses about his past relationship with his twin, who was born with a port-wine stain that colored more than half his face purple. The boy was teased mercilessly by other children. As a result, he became shy and self-conscious at an early age. He actually took up long distance swimming because it is a loner's sport. Will has always felt guilty at having been born "unmarked." The man is stressed out to the extent that he has considered taking a leave of absence from his practice. I find Will to be a very sympathetic character and the source of much of the novel's humor, as well as its sadness. His conversations with his analyst and patients are also very interesting and provide tremendous insight into basic psychoanalytic techniques - except for one potential analysand.

An outrageous young woman, (highly inappropriate behavior), comes to Will's office for an intake. She is essential to the plot, but her interactions with Will are (hopefully) purely fictionalized. The girl, in her early twenties, is sexually obsessed with older men. In fact, she "collects" them. She describes her sexual adventures to Will explicitly, blow-by-blow accounts, obviously looking to excite him and add him to her collection. Her "Fatal Attraction" behavior provides an element of the suspense thriller at times.

Kathryn Harrison has done it again. This is a beautifully written, intelligent novel, whose characters, and their inner workings, are more exciting than what goes on in the world around them. Their development and dialogue are brilliant, as are the author's descriptions of the surroundings, the city and countryside, even the poignant photographs taken by Will's dad. There are also some major surprises which will shock - at least they shocked me - in terms of various betrayals. Envy is certainly an appropriate title for this book.

Much of the author's writing contains themes of narcissism, family violation, physical suffering and sexual taboo. Envy is more humorous than her other books that I have read, and more erotic. Although there are painful moments, and the subject of possible incest does come up, pain and suffering are not the main focus. Envy definitely deserves 5 Stars, as far as I am concerned, and I highly recommend it.

  • Amazon readers rating: from 17 reviews

Read a chapter excerpt from Envy at Random House

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(Reviewed by Jana L. Perskie OCT 30, 2005)

"Everyone else had gone by the time Ann's father came looking for her. There was no one to see as he photographed his daughter, the still, small "S" of her body threaded through the dying grass. It looked as if she were unconscious or dead, abandoned on the periphery of the playing field. The late afternoon sun, just sinking, sent a beam through the benches, and the knives of shadow cut across her throat, severing head from torso. The peculiar light made a halo of her fair hair, and evoked a certain anxiety. Surely, any viewer of the picture hoped, death could not affect so perfect a balance, the curve of the child's slightly bent legs echoed in the disposition of her slender neck."

Exposure by Kathryn Harrison

Outwardly, Ann Rogers seems to be a young woman who has much to be happy about. She is extremely intelligent and perceptive, artistically talented, and if overly thin, she is still quite attractive with her waist-long red gold hair and chiseled features. She has a wonderful husband, Carl, who loves her very much, despite her sometimes bizarre behavior. And she co-owns a successful videotaping business, recording and editing the life celebrations of others - turning them into perfect events in her workshop.

In reality, Ann Rogers is seriously ill, both physically and mentally. As a girl she was diagnosed as having diabetes mellitus. She never followed doctors' instructions properly, behaving irresponsibly about eating regularly, testing blood sugar and injecting insulin. It was if she had a death wish. She certainly learned early on the consequences of her behavior. Her guardians, her father and maternal aunt, didn't monitor her as they should have. They were deemed negligent by Ann's doctor, causing an investigation by Child Protection Services when the adolescent girl was rushed to the hospital with severe insulin shock. It was not the first time such an emergency occurred. As an adult, Ann, if anything, has become even less responsible about caring for herself. Along with her potentially lethal carelessness, she exacerbates her poor health with an addiction to crystal meth - speed. She has been warned about the dangers of diabetic retinopathy, a complication of diabetes which occurs when small blood vessels in the retina become swollen, or tiny new blood vessels start to grow and block the retina causing the complete loss of sight. Taking drugs, especially speed, is part of a continuing pattern demonstrating Ann's lack of concern for her life. She also steals compulsively from New York City's most expensive department stores. Usually, there is no need or desire to possess the stolen items, so they are often disposed of quickly.

Ann's great grandfather was a photographer who lived and worked in Mexico for many years. The most lucrative aspect of his business was photographing the dead, especially children. Back in the late 1800's young children died frequently. They were often carried off by childhood illnesses, and there was a severe meningitis epidemic in his area in 1886. People, even the poorest, wanted memorial photographs of their "angelitos," (little angels). When Ann's father, the famous photographic artist, Edgar Evens Rogers, discovered a portfolio of his forefather's work he was fascinated. He began to photograph young Ann in the nude, in poses of death. She became his primary, in fact, his only subject.

Virginia Crane Rogers died giving birth to Ann. Mariette Crane, Virginia's sister, came to care for the infant and never left, becoming like a mother to the girl. The only interest her father showed in his daughter was as a model - her development as a human being ignored. And when her teen body began to fill out, although still quite thin and immature, he lost interest in her altogether. Edgar Rogers committed suicide in 1979, and photographed his own death from a camera set on a tripod with a timer attached. Needless to say, the resulting pictures scarred Ann terribly, not that these were her first scars.

New York's Museum of Modern Art has long been planning a retrospective of Edgar Rogers' work. As the exhibit's inauguration date approaches, Ann becomes extremely stressed which causes her to behave more erratically than usual. Many of Rogers' photographs will be on display for the first time. These are the most graphic, where prepubescent Ann is posed as if dead, or in sexually explicit situations. Some of the photos even show self-mutilation as art - art which violated the girl's, and then the woman's life.

Katheryn Harrison writes brilliantly, elegantly. Her narrative approaches poetry at times. However, Exposure is much more than a novel of psychological suspense. The storyline is devastatingly painful to read. Ann is most certainly over exposed. She was abused - her life, her very privacy invaded from childhood and made public. She was treated like an object by her only living parent. While reading, I often felt as if I were rubbernecking at the site of a horrendous automobile accident. I knew I would be sickened by what I saw, but I could not turn away. I became a voyeur. The characters and the read are so compelling, however, it is almost impossible to put the book down.

Since the publication of her memoir, The Kiss, in 1997, Ms. Harrison and her work have elicited much public attention - of the wrong kind, I think. She wrote about the incestuous affair she had with her father when she was in her 20's. Unfortunately, the autobiographical account probably receives all the scrutiny because of the taboo subject matter, rather than because the prose and the story are of literary merit - which they are. Much of her writing has pathological narcissism, violation, physical suffering and sexual taboo as central themes. Potential readers may find these topics too distasteful to deal with. This is a shame because the author is extremely talented and writes about much that is relevant in today's world. I recommend Exposure but suggest that for an initial experience one should begin with another Harrison novel. I am reading Envy right now, and find it excellent.

  • Amazon readers rating: from 11 reviews

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About the Author:

Kathryn HarrisonKathryn Harrison was born in Los Angeles, California in 1961. Her parents were only eighteen when she was born and lived with her maternal grandparents who ended up raising her. As told in her memoir, The Kiss, Harrison's childhood relation with her mother was dysfunctional and she only saw her father twice in twenty years. Then, when she did meet her father she was manipulated into an incestuous affair that lasted four years. She also suffered from eating disorders for years.

She graduated from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop in 1987, and from Iowa City moved to Brooklyn, New York, with Colin Harrison, whom she married in 1988. Her grandmother moved east and lived with them until her death, two months before her 92nd birthday. She got to see her first great-grandchild, Sarah, born in 1990. The Harrisons also have a son, Walker, born in 1992, and a younger daughter, Julia, born in 2000.

Ms. Harrison is a frequent reviewer for The New York Times Book Review; her essays, which have been included in many anthologies, have appeared in The New Yorker, Harper's Magazine, Vogue, O Magazine, Salon, and other publications.

She lives in New York with her husband, the novelist Colin Harrison, and their three children.

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