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In this extraordinary memoir, Harrison transforms into a work of art the darkest passage imaginable in a young woman's life--an obsessive love affair between father and daughter that began when Harrison was 20 years old. Exquisitely and hypnotically written, "The Kiss" reveals a shocking truth, a story both of taboo and of family complicity in breaking taboo.
Which would be all right -- it would be shameful, after all, to be caught enjoying a memoir about incest -- if the book had something to make it stand out from the mob of survivors' stories, both fictional and autobiographical, that publishers have inflicted on us lately. But as The Kiss demonstrates, incest alone, terrible as it is, does not a compelling book make.
This is not to downplay the pain that Harrison suffered, or the disgust and horror of the affair itself, which begins with a farewell kiss at an airport: "It is no longer a chaste, closed-lipped kiss. My father pushes his tongue deep into my mouth: wet, insistent, exploring, then withdrawn. He picks up his camera case, and, smiling brightly, he joins the end of the line of passengers disappearing into the airplane."
A grotesque moment, one of only a handful in an otherwise numbed and numbing narrative. In etherized first-person, present-tense prose, Harrison describes the paternal seduction that followed, the obsessive phone calls and letters, the blurry sexual encounters: "In years to come, I won't be able to remember even one instance of our lying together. I'll have a composite, generic memory. I'll know that he was always on top and that I always lay still, as still as if I had, in truth, fallen from a great height."
Although her father, an encyclopedia-salesman-turned-minister, comes across as an insatiable, narcissistic monster, it's Harrison's mother who turns out to be the unlikely villain of the piece, and the true object of incestuous desire. She and Harrison's father married young and impetuously; he left before their daughter was a year old. Harrison's mother pulled an emotional disappearing act herself, creating in her daughter the familiar, poisonous brew of anger, despondency, self-loathing and anorexia.
Years later, the longed-for, long-absent father comes back to plant that loathsome kiss on his beautiful, blond, grown-up daughter. It's only when her mother dies of cancer that Harrison finds the strength to end the affair and come to terms with the fact that her mother, not her father, is the parent whose love she really craved. Probably the most shocking scene in the book features Harrison fondling her mother's corpse in its casket: "I touch her chest, her arms, her neck; I kiss her forehead and her fingertips ... I slip my hand down as far as I can, past her knees, past the hem of her white dress. I want to touch and know all of her."
Mostly, however, The Kiss is not long on flash or useful revelation. Maybe Harrison needed to write it, to exorcise those family demons (though she's done this at least once before, and in more detail, in her novel Thicker Than Water). Maybe. But when her demons go, they go quietly, and it's up to publishing's PR machine -- and readers hypersensitized to a hot topic -- to supply the pyrotechnics the book itself lacks.--Jennifer Howard
“Only a writer of extraordinary gifts could bring so much light to bear on so dark a matter, redeeming it with the steadiness of her gaze and the uncanny, heartbreaking exactitude of her language.”—Tobias Wolff, author of This Boy’s Life
“Beautifully written . . . jumping back and forth in time yet drawing you irresistibly toward the heart of a great evil.”—The New York Times
“Like all good literature, The Kiss illuminates something that we knew already, while also teaching us things we had not even suspected.”—Los Angeles Times
“A darkly beautiful book, fearless and frightening, ironic and compassionate.”—Mary Gordon, author of Circling My Mother
“Harrison’s story is her own, but it is also a brilliant fiction, densely mythic, sometimes almost liturgical sounding and raw. She is both author and protagonist of a dark pilgrim’s progress.”—The Atlanta Journal and Constitution
Kathryn Harrison: I am doing fine, thank you. Thanks for having me.
Kathryn Harrison: Yes, I had written a couple of pieces of it in essay form, but I was working on a novel that was not going as well as I had hoped, and I had a meeting with my editor. We discussed what was wrong with the novel, and while I hadn't intended to say this, I found myself suggesting to throw the current novel out and begin a new book. And my editor asked what I wanted to write. I said I wanted to write a nonfiction book about my relationship with my father. I found myself shocked. She was shocked, too. It was never anything that I planned to write.
Kathryn Harrison: The first thing I would like to say is that all work is autobiographical, so there is a less difference between a novel and a memoir than a reader might casually suppose -- not that memoirs are untruthful, but that fiction novels are terribly autobiographical. I feel as intimately connected to my fiction as my nonfiction, and I read my reviews. The Jonathan Yardley review in The Washington Post was certainly a personal attack and was followed by two further attacks on the op-ed page. While the first one stung, I was grateful ultimately that it was so vitriolic, because it seems to have far more to do with Mr. Yardley than it did with me. In that case, the extreme, almost hysterical tone of the review gave away its total lack of objectivity.
Kathryn Harrison: THE KISS was in many ways a response to my own disappointment with my first novel, THICKER THAN WATER. The story is the same, and yet the narrator of my first novel is younger than I was when I met my father. She is more passive and more of a victim of her father's lust and cruelty than I knew myself to be. In that sense, I felt after the publication of THICKER THAN WATER that I had betrayed my own story and what I understood to be true about a very painful passage in my life. At the time that I began THE KISS, I was prepared to be honest with myself and with readers about my life as a young woman, especially about the angry, destructive relationship I had with my mother. As a person and as a writer, I felt that I needed to own the story as a work of nonfiction. While the differences between the two books may not be dramatic to a casual reader, they are to me.
Kathryn Harrison: While I never told this story to anyone besides my husband and two very close friends, I don't think it came as a surprise to those who know me. My grandparents and my mother are dead. My children are too young to know about either the story or the book. I was worried about telling my husband's parents. This is probably the last story anybody would want to share with their in-laws. But I knew them well enough to anticipate their support. The shortest answer to the question was that I had come to a point where my relationship with myself and with the truth was more important than what anybody might think about me. My only remaining concern is the necessity of sharing this with my children, but it is a story I planned to tell them anyway when they are ready, and that is separate from the book.
Kathryn Harrison: Absolutely!
Kathryn Harrison: As a young child, Helen Keller and Amelia Earhart. When I was a little older, I had a feverish relationship with certain Catholic saints.
Kathryn Harrison: Well, my mother is dead, and I have been estranged from my father for 12 years.
Kathryn Harrison: My best work hours are during the day, when my kids are in school. My husband [Colin Harrison] is the deputy editor of Harper's magazine, so he works during the night, during the weekends, whenever he can. We do read each other's work and offer suggestions, although I am far more secretive about mine and rarely share it in process.
Kathryn Harrison: I am not a journal keeper, so I had few personal records other than correspondence. My father was a daily letter writer, and reviewing his letters reminded me of a few things and helped to clarify chronology.
Kathryn Harrison: Not to my knowledge.
Kathryn Harrison: Yes, I suppose he did take advantage of me. He was a good deal older. When I met my father, I was incapable of turning down attention or love in any form, and I was deeply ensnared in a troubled relationship with my mother, one through which I filtered all experience. I suppose that adds up to my being confused. And not in full possession of my reasoning abilities. It was not an affair that had anything to do with being rational.
Kathryn Harrison: I always answer my author mail. And what I say really depends on the letter I receive.
Kathryn Harrison: Memoirs have certainly existed at least since St. Augustine. We seem to be experiencing a period of enthusiasm for their apparent authenticity. Voyeurism is a part of human nature, and memoirs feed the same need that has inspired so many talk shows, and Real Life TV.
Kathryn Harrison: I am finishing up a novel that is loosely based on parts of my grandmother's early life. I expect that it will be published in about a year.
Kathryn Harrison: It wasn't so much cathartic as it was my coming to terms with an acutely painful relationship that I had in some measure denied for years. There is relief in admitting what happened and accepting my responsibility. I am sure this will always remain painful. As for my privacy, most of my life remains hidden and is not available for comment. I am not terribly concerned with what people think of me. My sense of my public self is invested in the quality of my work.
Kathryn Harrison: There are no plans as of now.
Kathryn Harrison: I am still in therapy because of what happened between me and my mother.
Kathryn Harrison: Both...
Kathryn Harrison: I have no contact with my father and haven't for many years.
Kathryn Harrison: What I really wanted to be was a doctor. Writing is an addiction and the way I explain the world to myself.
Kathryn Harrison: No one.
Kathryn Harrison: We collaborate on so many other things, I don't think we will be writing a book together.
Kathryn Harrison: My mother was a very young and troubled mother whom I loved without measure. By the time I had met my father, I was very angry with her for abandoning me. The three of us became ensnared in a love triangle. I understood that my mother was still in love with my father, and his obsession with me was valuable for the pain it caused her. I guess that adds up to acting out.
Kathryn Harrison: I would just like to thank everyone for their interest. So much of writing is isolated, and I always value the chance to meet readers.
Posted May 30, 2000
I read 'The Kiss' when it was first published in 1998, having been a huge fan of Harrison's novel 'Poison'. I read this book in one evening. It is amazingly gripping despite the incest theme. I, like another reviewer, also had a relationship with a much older man, and did understand the intensity of the connection involved in such situations. In the case of the book, I feel it is also important to note that while the man WAS her father, he did not raise her. This, at least to me, seems to allow for a bit more sympathy and understanding. The book is fascinating in a perverse way, and I would especially recommend it if you're a fan of Harrison's other books.
1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted June 23, 2013
Posted March 11, 2011
Yes, this book is about a gripping theme which would seemingly make you want to read it, but in reality, it is boring and repetitious. The main character has a strange relationship with her mother, and is pretty much raised by her grandparents, until her father comes into her life again and is enamored by her. Their relationship escalates into lust for each other, and they begin to be sexual partners. The main character actually allows this, which makes it for a really strange plot. I thought the book would focus more on their sexual relationship. Instead it focuses more on the fact that the main character just wants to be wanted. Bottom line: the book is boring and not worth it.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted November 9, 2010
This book was beautifully written by Kathryn Harrison, but I have to wonder what were her motives for publishing it? Was it part of the healing process to tell the world her story of incest with her father, or did she just do it for shock value and publicity? It was hard to put the book down and I would recommend it to anyone, but it's certainly not a book for everyone!Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted July 11, 2010
I read this memoir over a decade ago. I still talk about it all these years later. I think about how when reading it, there where many times I had to set it down and pull myself out of her head and back into my own before I could continue. I love books that make you uncomfortable. She had the courage to tell her dark secrets. Do you have the nerve to read them?Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted April 25, 2010
I Also Recommend:
The subject matter is so utterly offensive and disturbing, it is hard
to be objective. The story is interesting but you almost feel dirty for
learning of such deep dark secrets. I really enjoyed the author's
later novel on footbinding and had heard about her memoir. Obviously,
she was able to move past such a troubling upbringing and go on to much
success as a writer.
Posted February 13, 2010
I thought this book was weird, and not as in good weird. I picked it up at the airport, it's small and doesn't take long to read. I probably would not have finished it had been longer. I'd buy something else if I were you.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted February 22, 2008
The book is okay. Its a little to jumpy for me. As I was reading I kept thinking its got to get better than this. But its an okay book, I finished it in one afternoon.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted February 1, 2005
This book is about the struggle of a girl that wanted to liberate herself from her unloving mother and her obsessive father. Kathryn grew up with her grandparents and her emotionally distant mother. Her mother was always too busy, involved in herself, sleeping, and lived in a world that her daughter did not take part in. She met her father 20 years into her life, when she was entering college. Seeking that comfort and love, she involved herself in an affair with her own father. That sense of belonging and love made her feel secure, but the truth was unbearable, even for her to handle. I would definitely recommend this book to people of all ages, especially young adults and teenagers. The topic is disconcerting, yet makes you reflect on your own life. Once you start reading, you won¿t want to put it down. It¿s written in a simplistic way, yet integrated me in it as if I was the protagonist. There were parts that were so emotionally disturbing, that they brought tears to my eyes. I can¿t express how much admiration I have for Kathryn. She¿s an admirable person for dealing with such a burden, at such a young age. It has made me realize how lucky I¿ve been and that what I have experienced is nothing in comparison to her story.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted January 31, 2005
This book¿s title is The Kiss, by Kathryn Harrison. This memoir is powerful, it¿s about the soul of a young girl and a terrible injury that happened between her and a man who should of protected her. Every so often a book come a long that will leave its readers disturbed, disrupted, and left in shock. A young girl had an unusual relationship with her father. A relationship that should not happen, she felt accepted only when she was with her father. Her father had a keen sense in making her feel welcome and accepted. That was the reason why she felt this love; hate feeling when she was around him. It was like she felt loved by him, but new the relationship was not right, nor it would not work out. I would recommend this book to young adults. I only say young adults because its context. They would feel sorry for this poor girl and feel a need to reach out and help young girls who are the exact same way. It made me realized how bad certain people have it and how lucky people are to have good lives. This book made me stronger and I know feel more powerful. I know what is right from wrong and how to stand on my own two feet. So yes I would recommend this book to young adults that need help with the same things that I did. Hopefully the people who read it will feel more at ease with their lives.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted July 14, 2004
i do enjoy a good novel, but this one lacks ALOT OF DETAIL, i wanted to hear how she felt with her feelings of detail,i didnt want to figure it out, i wanted to hear if from her and what she went through from detail to detail, and i got bored with the flip flop from adult hood to child hood.i felt like there was alot of repeating of the same thing, i just think the book could of been put together better than what it was, i was surprised how she never got hostile with what her father did to her,she took it very calmly and quiet .........to me i feel like the book is unfinished, there was alot missing, but i can sympathize with her......sorryWas this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted March 3, 2004
At the beginning of the book, I kinda find it boring. But the more I read into it, the more I am touched by the author. Unlike many other autobiography, she showed no anger, no hatred. She told the story and leave the reader to think, to feel.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted August 17, 2003
the story is absolutely disturbing. it is by far the most amazing writing a have ever read. reading this memoir is an experience that shouldn't be passed up. i read this for a writing class in college and am grateful for the opportunity.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted November 16, 2002
The Kiss is an excellent book. It shows such great insight into how perversity is not only passed down through generations but justified by the offenders themselves. The perverse nature of her Father's affections born of a infantile psyche serve to remind us that sexual predators cross both boundaries of economic and educational position. The examples of what has taken place in this authors life are constant reminders that there is a Great Difference between a Mature Being who understands and respects the sacred boundaries of Father, Daughter or any other immediate family member. It's a fine line between perverse desire and what is truly love. From the moment I started this book I simply couldn't put it down. Now this should be a recommended reader in Universities across the nation. There are so many blatant abuses of definitions and intentions as it pertains to love and loving. I believe the author gives us, through her own experiences, knowledge to better arm ourselves and our loved ones against such infantile beings that may exist in our own immediate families. Thank you so much for having the courage to share your personal story with so many of us out here.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted June 1, 2001
A haunting tale, which is a story of control and abuse. Initially I was lead to believe that this was a sexual story, which it is not. The author writes in a haunting style that lets the reader draw their own conclusions. However, this is not a book for those that are squeamish and live their lives hiding from the truth. Definitely one of the best books that I have ever read. In reading this book, I understood a lot more about myself.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted August 12, 2000
Incest survivors owe a great debt to Kathryn Harrison. Unimaginably gifted, she lyrically explains the forces at play in an incestuous relationship and leaves the reader with a vivid sense of the shell shock that comes in incest's aftermath. Reviewers have described the numbness present in Ms. Harrison's writing; in this she reminds me of Marguerite Duras.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted February 29, 2000
As a 15 year old girl with two parents, still married, who love me in the traditional way, I was definitely disturbed by this memoir. I couldn't put it down. The way in which everything was described made me feel surges of emotion that can't be put into words, except, of course, by Kathryn Harrison, who wrote about her dark secret beautifully. This book was something I picked up to pass a sick day home from school; I was fully unaware of what I was getting myself into. This is a masterpiece. It stirs the emotions inside, captivates, and almost doesn't allow for rest breaks. Thank you, Mrs. Harrison, for a most interesting day.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted October 17, 2008
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Posted January 17, 2009
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Posted April 1, 2010
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