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The Kiss

The Kiss

3.8 28
by Kathryn Harrison, Jane Smiley (Afterword)

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In this acclaimed and groundbreaking memoir, Kathryn 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 begins when she, at age twenty, is reunited with the father whose absence had haunted her youth. Exquisitely and hypnotically written, like a bold and


In this acclaimed and groundbreaking memoir, Kathryn 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 begins when she, at age twenty, is reunited with the father whose absence had haunted her youth. Exquisitely and hypnotically written, like a bold and terrifying dream, The Kiss is breathtaking in its honesty and in the power and beauty of its creation. A story both of transgression and of family complicity in breaking taboo, The Kiss is also about love—about the most primal of love triangles, the one that ensnares a child between mother and father.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“I couldn’t stop reading this. I’ll never stop remembering it.”—Mary Karr, author of The Liars’ Club

“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

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Few memoirs receive the amount of prepublication hype that surrounds this slim and powerful autobiography by a writer whose lurid, psychologically vivid novels (Exposure, etc.) have portrayed sexual abuse, cruel power games and extreme, self-destructive behavior. Harrison here turns an unflinching eye on the episode in her life that has most influenced those books: a secret, sexual affair with her father that began when she was 20. Not surprisingly, the book is unremittingly novelistic: it unfolds in an impressionistic series of flashbacks and is told in the present tense in prose that is brutally spare and so emotionally numb as to suggest that recounting the affair is for Harrison is the psychological equivalent of reliving it. Abandoned by her father as a child, neglected by an emotionally remote and impetuous mother, Harrison is raised by her grandparents. She retreats at a young age into a complex interior life marked by religious fixations, bouts of anorexia and self-injury, rage at her callous mother and obsession with her absent father. A minister and amateur cameraman, her father visits Harrison after an absence of 10 years, when she is home from college on spring break. The boundary between flirtation and paternal affection is soon blurred, as her father lavishly dotes on her and, in parting, kisses her sexually on the mouth. A relationship of passionate promises, obsessive long-distance phone calls and letters then flourishes, as her father, presented here as ghoulishly predatory, relentlessly draws her into his web. Gradually consenting to his demands for sex, Harrison drops out of college and moves in with her father's new family, extricating herself from the affair only when her mother is stricken with metastatic breast cancer. Throughout the book, Harrison omits names, dates and locations, shrewdly fashioning these dark events into a kind of Old Testament nightmare in which incest is just one of a host of physical trials, from pneumonia to shingles, self-cutting and bulimia. If Harrison sacrifices objectivity in places for a mode of storytelling engineered for maximum shock value, most readers still will find this book remarkable for both the startling events it portrays and the unbridled force of the writing. (Apr.)
Library Journal
The reading experience doesn't get much better than this: a literary author whose fiction has flirted with incestuous leitmotivs (e.g., Exposure, LJ 12/92) writes a true confession, and in the present tense, of her several-year "affair" as a college student with her handsome father, absent most of her life growing up. Instigated by a French kiss in an airport-like the "transforming sting" of a scorpion that the father "administers in order that he might consume me"-their tentative rapprochement explodes into an "unspeakable" passion: he, an ex-theologian, worships her long hair; she is captivated by his ardent attention. She is also enraged at her mother, of course, and the cruelty the pair inflict behind her back is stunning. "Whatever passions we feel," Harrison extols in her psychoanalytically corrected, rather blank prose, "we call love." Indeed, there is a great deal missing here, namely, the sex, which Harrison claims she can't remember. It's hard not to approach this publishing sensation cynically; and Harrison, with foresight, has turned it instead into a rueful coming-to-terms with her mother, concluding with her death (the book is dedicated to "Beloved"-her mother, not her father). Whether it's a brave or brazen effort, readers will want this.-Amy Boaz, "Library Journal"
[F]or anybody lucky enough to have missed all the prepublication hoopla about The Kiss -- an excerpt snapped up by The New Yorker, a hand-holding profile in Mirabella, front-page coverage in the New York Observer, a raised-eyebrow report in Vanity Fair and the list goes on -- The Kiss is novelist Kathryn Harrison's memoir of the four-year affair she had, beginning at the tender but consenting age of 20, with her father. But for all the ink spilled, all the heat this book has generated before ever seeing the inside of a bookstore, there's not much here to raise anyone's temperature. Those who pick up The Kiss looking for sweaty-palmed titillation be warned: You'll find more sizzle at a backyard barbecue.

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

Product Details

Random House Publishing Group
Publication date:
Sales rank:
Product dimensions:
5.06(w) x 7.96(h) x 0.59(d)

Read an Excerpt

We meet at airports. We meet in cities where we've never been before. We meet where no one will recognize us.

One of us flies, the other brings a car, and in it we set out for some destination. Increasingly, the places we go are unreal places: the Petrified Forest, Monument Valley, the Grand Canyon — places as stark and beautiful and deadly as those revealed in satellite photographs of distant planets. Airless, burning, inhuman.

Against such backdrops, my father takes my face in his hands. He tips it up and kisses my closed eyes, my throat. I feel his fingers in the hair at the nape of my neck. I feel his hot breath on my eyelids.

We quarrel sometimes, and sometimes we weep. The road always stretches endlessly ahead and behind us, so that we are out of time as well as out of place. We go to Muir Woods in northern California, so shrouded in blue fog that the road is lost; and we drive down the Natchez Trace into deep, green Mississippi summer. The trees bear blossoms big as my head; their ivory petals drift to the ground and cover our tracks.

Separated from family and from the flow of time, from work and from school; standing against a sheer face of red rock one thousand feet high; kneeling in a cave dwelling two thousand years old; watching as a million bats stream from the mouth of Carlsbad Caverns into the purple dusk — these nowheres and no-times are the only home we have.

Meet the Author

Kathryn Harrison's novels include Thicker than Water and Exposure, both New York Times Notable Books, and Poison, called "powerful and hypnotic" by The New York Times and "a masterpiece" by Lucy Grealy.  Harrison lives in New York.

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The Kiss: A Memoir 3.8 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 28 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
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.
Guest More than 1 year ago
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.
Guest More than 1 year ago
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.
Guest More than 1 year ago
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.
Guest More than 1 year ago
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.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
A true story of her life and relationships with her mother, grandparents and the father she never knew. Heartbreaking and shocking.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I couid not finish this book. Sentences, paragraphs were fragmented. I suspect what the gist of the story is and it was not a comfortable read.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
StephWalker More than 1 year ago
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!
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suzyd More than 1 year ago
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.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
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.
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Guest More than 1 year ago
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......sorry
Guest More than 1 year ago
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.
crickett78 More than 1 year ago
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?
Guest More than 1 year ago
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.
Guest More than 1 year ago
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.
Guest More than 1 year ago
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.