Kathryn Harrison Critical Essays

Introduction

Kathryn Harrison 1961-

American novelist and memoirist.

The following entry presents an overview of Harrison's work through 2000. For further information on her life and works, see CLC, Volume 70.

Harrison received a measure of critical praise for her first three novels, Thicker Than Water (1991), Exposure (1993), and Poison (1995). However, her fourth book, a memoir entitled The Kiss (1997), in which Harrison details a lengthy incestuous relationship she had with her father, met with widespread criticism that was largely sparked by its controversial subject matter. Harrison had previously fictionalized this relationship in her novel Thicker Than Water. While The Kiss has been faulted by many commentators for its titillating confessions and for what they see as a rehashing of an earlier work, other critics have lauded the memoir's stark intensity and lyrical prose.

Biographical Information

Harrison was born in 1961 to Edward and Carole Lang, in Los Angeles, California. Her parents separated when Harrison was young, and shortly after, her father remarried. Harrison attended Stanford University and later the University of Iowa Writers' Workshop. When Harrison was twenty years old, she entered into a consensual incestuous relationship with her father, an affair that began with a single kiss, which served as the inspiration for the title of Harrison's memoir. For four years, Harrison and her once-estranged father maintained a sexual relationship, always meeting far away from Harrison's college and her father's community where he had a family and worked as a preacher. The affair ended when Harrison's mother passed away. Harrison has worked as an editor at Viking Publishers in New York. She was awarded a James Michener Fellowship in 1989 and a New York Foundation for the Arts' artist fellowship in 1994.

Major Works

In Thicker Than Water, Harrison depicts the dark side of what seems to be a glamorous Los Angeles lifestyle. Isabel, the story's narrator, is part of a wealthy yet highly dysfunctional family. She endures a childhood fraught with neglect and abuse, an adolescence encumbered by psychological problems, and a young adulthood marked by her mother's death and an incestuous relationship with her father. Exposure centers around a woman struggling with issues from her childhood and her relationship with Edgar, her father. Edgar is a successful photographer who uses his young daughter as a model for sexually suggestive and morbid photographs. In Poison, Harrison chose to set her novel in seventeenth-century Spain and again addresses themes of illicit eroticism and the mistreatment of women. By intertwining the tales of two very different women, Maria Luisa and Francisca, Harrison underscores her recurrent themes by contrasting a strong, assertive character with a meeker, repressed character who is forced to live under bleak circumstances. Harrison's most well-known and controversial work, The Kiss, is a memoir that recounts her four-year consensual affair with her father while she was in her early twenties. Harrison returned to historical fiction with The Binding Chair (2000), which focuses on two women, May Cohen and Alice Benjamin. May is Shanghai prostitute who has fled the confines of her stifling first marriage after being wed to a wealthy Jewish client from her brothel. Alice, May's niece by marriage, is an independent and rebellious youngster who defies her family's attempts at a traditional upbringing. The novel follows the two women through their struggles and concludes with Alice travelling to the French Riviera to become a ward of her aunt.

Critical Reception

Critical response to Harrison's first three novels was generally favorable. Reviewing Exposure, Wendy Smith wrote, “Harrison, who even in her first book displayed exceptional artistic assurance and control, has crafted a multi-layered text. … the delineation, in superbly modulated prose, of a woman's painful, tentative journey toward self-knowledge.” Critical assessment of The Kiss has varied widely. Many reviewers panned the memoir as a publicity stunt or as Harrison's attempt to exact revenge on her mother. Jonathan Yardley referred to the book as “trash. … not an artful word in it.” Tobias Wolff entered into a spirited public debate with Yardley concerning the work and the merits of the memoir genre as a whole. Wolff complimented the courage it took Harrison to write The Kiss and commented that “[t]he truth is that they are using her as a target of convenience for their animus against the genre she's working in—the memoir.” Looking beyond the initial controversy, Joanne Kaufman hoped that “[p]erhaps The Kiss will serve as the means by which Harrison can finally exorcise her demons and begin to broaden the terrain of her fiction.” Reviewers were again divided in their response to The Binding Chair. Several critics remarked that Harrison's prose was scintillating, while others found the events depicted to be too gruesome and reminiscent of her previous works. Some commentators noted in their reviews of The Binding Chair that perhaps the mixed critical reactions to The Kiss caused Harrison to lose sight of what her readers expect from her, and thus lose faith in her own abilities as a novelist.