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
“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