Envy: A Novelby Kathryn Harrison
Will has a good sex life–with the woman he married. So why then is he increasingly plagued by violent erotic fantasies that, were they to break out of his imagination and into the real world, have the power to destroy not only his family but his career? He’s about to lose his grip when he attends a college reunion and there discovers evidence of a past sexual betrayal, one serious enough that it threatens to overpower the present, even as it offers a key to Will’s dangerous obsessions.
Hypnotic, beautifully written, this mesmerizing novel by “an extremely gifted writer” (San Francisco Chronicle) explores the corrosive effect of evil–and how painful psychological truths long buried within a family can corrupt the present and, through courage and understanding, lead to healing and renewal. “Like Scheherezade in the grip of a fever dream, Kathryn Harrison . . . has written one of those rare books, in language of unparalleled beauty, that affirm the holiness of life,” said Shirley Ann Grau, about Poison. And the same can be said about Envy.
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Will leans out of the driver’s-side window toward his wife. “It’s not too late to change your mind,” he says.
Her dark glasses show him the houses on their side of the block, greatly reduced and warped by the convexity of each lens. The fancy wrought-iron bars on their neighbor’s windows, the bright plastic backboard of the Little Tikes basketball hoop one door down, the white climbing rose, suddenly and profusely in bloom, on the trellis by their own mailbox: it’s as if he were studying one of those jewel-like miniatures painted in Persia during the sixteenth century; the longer Will looks, the more tiny details he finds.
“Did you remember to bring pictures?” Carole asks.
He points to an envelope on the seat beside him. “I mentioned the pool at the hotel?”
“Babysitting services? Pay-per-view?”
“Come on, Will,” Carole says, “don’t do this to me.”
“Make me feel guilty.” Her bra strap has slipped out from the armhole of her sleeveless dress, down one shoulder. Without looking, she tucks it back where it belongs.
“You know I’d make it up to you,” he tells her. She smiles, raises her eyebrows so they appear above the frames of her sunglasses.
“And how might you do that?” she asks him.
“By being your sex slave.”
She reaches behind his neck to adjust his collar. “Aren’t you forgetting something?” she says.
“You already are my sex slave.”
“Oh,” Will says, “right.” The errant strap has reemerged, a black satiny one he recognizes as belonging to the bra that unhooks in front.
Carole ducks her head in the window to brush her lips against his cheek, a kiss, but not quite: no pucker, no sound. For a moment she rests her forehead against his. “I just can’t deal with it. You know that. I can’t talk about Luke—not with people I don’t know. And the same goes for your brother.” She pulls back to look at him. “If you weren’t such a masochist, you wouldn’t be going either.”
I’m curious, Will thinks of saying. It’s not as simple as masochism. Or as complicated. Carole steps back from the car door.
“See you Sunday,” she says, and her voice has returned to its previous playful tone. “Call if you get lonely.”
“Oh, I doubt that’ll be necessary.” Will turns the key in the ignition. “I’ll be too busy connecting with old friends. Blowing on the embers of undergraduate romance . . .”
“Checking out the hairlines,” she says. “Seeing who got fat and who got really fat.”
Will glances in the rearview mirror as he drives away, sees his wife climb the stairs to their front door, the flash of light as she opens it, the late June sun hot and yellow against its big pane of glass.
S S omething about the cavernous tent defeats acoustics: the voices of the class of ’79, those Cornell alumni who made it back for their twenty-fifth reunion, combine in a percussive assault on the eardrum, the kind Will associates with driving on a highway, one window cracked for air, that annoying whuh-whuh-whuh sound. He moves his lower jaw from side to side to dispel the echoey, dizzy feeling. Psychosomatic, he concludes. Why is he here, anyway? Does he even want to make the effort to hear well enough to engage with these people? Everyone around him, it seems, isn’t talking so much as advertising. Husbands describing vacations too expensive to include basic plumbing, referring to them as experiences rather than travel, as in “our rain forest experience.” And, as if to demonstrate what good sports they are, wives laughing at everything, including comments that strike Will as pure information. “No, they relocated.” “Ohio, wasn’t it?” “The kids are from the first marriage.” “She fell in love with this guy overseas.”
He tries to picture the women’s workaday selves: quieter, with paler lips, flatter hair. Still, on the whole they’re well preserved, while the men by their sides look worn and rumpled. Receding hairlines have nowhere else to go; love handles have grown too big to take hold of.
“Hey!” someone says, and Will turns around to a face he remembers from his freshman dorm. “David Snader!” the face bellows to identify itself. With his big, hot hand, David pulls Will into a crushing hug. “Where you been!” he says, as though he’d lost track of Will hours rather than decades ago.
“Hey!” Will pulls out of the sweaty and, it would appear, drunken embrace.
“Are you here alone?” David asks him. He blots his forehead with a handkerchief.
Will nods. “Carole—my wife—she wasn’t up for a long weekend of nostalgia with people she’s never met before.”
“Same here. Same here.” David gives Will a companionable punch in the arm. “Where’s Mitch?” he asks, and Will shrugs.
“Didn’t make it. At least not as far as I know.”
“Oh yeah?” David squints. “You guys not in touch or something?”
“Not at the moment.”
“Well.” He punches Will’s arm again. “Guess that makes sense. All the travel. Media. Price of fame.”
Will produces the rueful smile he hopes will convey that his estrangement from his famous twin is no big deal. Unfortunate, of course, but nothing hurtful or embarrassing. He’s about to ask David about his wife and whether or not they have children, when David lurches off into the crowd. Will fills his cheeks with air, blows it out in a gust. David Snader is the fifth person in one hour to have approached him to ask not about Will or Will’s work, his family, but about his brother, whose career as a long-distance swimmer has given Mitch a name as recognizable as that of, say, Lance Armstrong or Tiger Woods. Not that any of these alumni were his friends. Will and David hadn’t even liked each other. But still.
He goes to the bar for a glass of red wine. If he’s going to drink, he might as well rinse a little cholesterol out of his arteries. He’s just replacing his wallet in the inside breast pocket of his blazer when he looks up to see someone else bearing down on him, Sue Shimakawa, with whom he’d shared an exam-week tryst, if that’s the right word for abbreviated coitus in the musty, rarely penetrated stacks of the undergraduate library. Punch-drunk from studying chemistry for a few hundred hours, on a dare Will had asked Sue to have sex with him, prepared for a slap, or for her badmouthing him later or laughing at him in the moment, anything but what he got: her accepting his invitation with a sort of gung-ho enthusiasm. She had one of those bodies Will thinks of as typically Asian: compact, androgynous, and smooth-skinned, with pubic hair that was absolutely straight instead of curly, the surprise of this discovery—along with the panic induced by having intercourse in a potentially public place—enough to eclipse other, more inclusive observations.
“Will, Will, Will,” Sue sings at him. “I was hoping to see you!” She has a man in tow, a sandy-haired giant at least a foot and a half taller than she. “Meet Rob. We have five kids, if you can believe it! Five!”
Wow, Will is about to say when Sue turns to her husband and says, “Rob, this is Will Moreland, an old fuck-buddy of mine.”
Whether Rob is mute or only, like Will, horrified into silence, he thrusts his big, freckled hand forward without saying a word. The two men shake, silent in the clamor all around them, and then each drops his hand to his side and looks at Sue to see what might happen next.
“Rob’s a debt analyst,” she says.
“Really!” Will exclaims.
They all nod.
“Hey, hey,” Sue says. “How about that brother of yours, huh? We’re major fans. Major.”
“He has had a spectacular ride.” For once, Will is relieved when the conversation turns to his brother.
“Oh, I don’t know. There’s heaps of athletes that are celebrities.”
“Of course, yes,” Will says. “I know that. I just—”
“Is he here?”
“At the reunion. Here at the reunion.”
“No. I’m afraid not.”
“Oh, too bad. I really wanted to catch a glimpse of him.”
Me, too, Will thinks as Sue and her husband move off. Having not heard from his brother for fifteen years now, during which time Mitch went from being known in the world of elite swimmers to being known by just about everyone, Will fantasized that Mitch might actually show up. If he’s honest with himself, the hope of seeing his brother was at least part of what persuaded him to attend the reunion—especially after he’d learned that Andrew Goldstein, the one friend with whom he’d kept in touch after college, wouldn’t be coming because his wife’s due date fell on the same weekend. Not that seeing Mitch would be pleasant or, Will imagines, anything less than traumatic, but he’s fed up with having to manage his private anguish even as he’s forced to admit sheepishly to friends, colleagues, neighbors, and now alumni that he’s no better informed about his brother’s latest stunt swim—as Will has come to think of them—than the average reader of Sports Illustrated.
“Hello,” says a voice behind him, startling Will out of what Carole would call one of his social desertions, when he becomes a spectator rather than a participant. He turns in the direction of the flirtatious tone he almost recognizes. As for the face: arresting, angular, unforgettable. Thinner than she used to be, but no less substantial—she looks concentrated, a distillate of her younger self.
“Elizabeth,” he says.
“William.” She tilts her head to one side, lifts her eyebrows. “Were you looking for someone?”
“You, of course. Who else?” Will unbuttons his shirt collar and loosens his tie. “Do you think I didn’t scour each of those e-mail bulletins listing who was planning to attend, hoping—hoping against hope—to see your name?”
“Can it be?” Elizabeth says. “Has Mr. Fatally Earnest developed a sense of humor?”
“Only in extremis.”
Elizabeth glances around herself. “I guess this qualifies,” she says.
“Actually, I was just looking over the crowd. Seeing what generalizations I could make about the class of ’seventy-nine.”
He shrugs. “I don’t know that I’ve had enough time to study my impressions. You?”
She shakes her head. “Insufficient data,” she says.
“Data? That’s a clinical word.”
“I’m a clinician.”
“Oh, right. I’d heard you’d gone on to med school.” Having read her bio in the reunion book—studied it would not be inaccurate—Will knows also to which school Elizabeth went, when she got her degree, and where she now works. But he’s not going to give her the (false) impression that he’s still pining for her. “Where’d you end up—what school?” he asks.
“Johns Hopkins.” Elizabeth pauses, Will suspects, to give him the opportunity to compliment her for having been accepted by a top-flight med school. He dips his head in an abbreviated bow of congratu-lation. “I was in dermatology,” she continues, “then I specialized.”
“I thought being a dermatologist was specializing.”
From the Hardcover edition.
Meet the Author
Kathryn Harrison is the author of the novels The Seal Wife, The Binding Chair, Poison, Exposure, and Thicker Than Water. She has also written the memoirs The Kiss and The Mother Knot; a travel memoir, The Road to Santiago; a biography, Saint Thérèse of Lisieux; and a collection of essays, Seeking Rapture. She lives in New York with her husband, the novelist Colin Harrison, and their children.
From the Hardcover edition.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
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Envy is an enigmatic and powerful story brilliantly told by the talented Kathryn Harrison. It's a story that crept under my skin and stayed there until the final tense pages. It's an extremely sad and dark story. I love the way in which Harrison digs deep and tells us all the flaws and insecurities that rest in the characters. Perhaps I am supposed to feel disgust toward the main character, Will, over his actions, but I actually feel sympathy for him. I can't believe all the horrible things that happened to him. I was in disbelief over the situations of the other characters as well. I'm really fond of character driven novels, and in the end all of the characters do really connect with each other. It really is shocking toward the end when everything is revealed. The Pandora's box of secrets is opened and the truth can no longer hide in the dark any longer. It is extremely painful and heart breaking to learn the truth alongside Will. This is a complex, layered novel, so I'm not really surprised that it got such low reviews. I try to not pay any mind to the reviews and ratings before I read a book, and I'm so happy I gave this book a chance. Kathryn Harrison blew me away with her memoir The Kiss, so I knew that Envy wasn't going to disappoint. I love how she isn't afraid to write about taboo themes or subjects that people would rather ignore or forget. The characters in this novel aren't plain evil or good, just like in real life. Instead, they are complex characters that are illuminated by Harrison's beautiful writing. The past becomes the present when one ignores the past. I think that this is an important message about Envy, one that is often overlooked by many. I was left with many questions once I finished the book, but I was left with a satisfying hope that things were going to work out for Will. It was really hard to put down this novel, and it captivated me from beginning to end. I highly recommend it if you like dramas and novels with psychological insight.
a complex and brilliant novel that is pretty much impossible to put down. it is sexually graphic and provocative, but that is hardly a reason to dismiss it and it is certainly not all it has to say. far from it! harrison is one of the finest writers working to day. read this novel, or exposure, and see if you don't agree. her memoir the kiss, is also absolutely stunning. no one who reads the kiss comes away from it unaffected. she belongs on the shelf with robert stone, who also tries to map the darker regions of the human experience. but in fact, there is no one quite like her. envy is VERY highly recommended!!
This is an amazing look into the world of grieving. Well written to the nth degree. I could not wait to get home from work to read it. And then I read slowly to savor the impact.
This book is a good choice for those not looking to fly through a story. The plot, as well as the characters, make you think about and examine, both yourself and your priorities. While some parts are filled with interesting scenarios and inticing plot, others drag with what I would call 'hollow therapist jargon'. Overall a good book, but not great!