Sally Duros's Reviews > Envy

Envy by Kathryn Harrison
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's review
Sep 07, 08

bookshelves: fiction
Recommended for: Boomers, aspiring writers
Read in June, 2005

I reviewed this book for the Chicago Sun-Times Book Review section. It was published 7/15/05. This book resides at the intersection of mysticism and psychology. It's insights are obscured by the parameters of the writer's own point of view. Huh? Read it and you'll see what I mean.

Kathryn Harrison's Envy: More Sizzling Sex Secrets
By Sally Duros

Kathryn Harrison has delivered a compelling tale in her brooding new novel, Envy. Readers who admired her controversial memoir, The Kiss, will find themselves in familiar territory here.

In this, her first contemporary novel since Thicker than Water in 1991, Harrison speaks from the viewpoint of a character appropriate for her baby boomer audience. Will Moreland is a psychoanalyst, graduate of the class of '79, successful, married, and father of two children. We meet Will at a moment of surface calm. But we learn quickly that he is on the brink of a personal crisis building since the accidental drowning of his 10-year-old son, Luke, a few years before. Will suffers from a hyper-analytical and over-articulate mind. The intellect that serves him well in his practice hinders his personal life. As a psychoanalyst, he believes he can think his way to the root cause of any human experience, but, in truth, his intellect hobbles his ability to see clearly.

Will is shaken by dreams that suggest he's undergone a grisly transformation since Luke's death. And it's true that grief has profoundly changed him and his relationship with his highly composed wife, Carole. A wall has come between them, and their previously healthy sex life has been reduced to what Will views as an "indulgence of his need," a lukewarm transaction based on "mercy." In turn, Will suffers from a sexual obsession so severely distracting that he has considered taking a leave from his psychoanalytic practice. Will's inner life is also haunted by ruminations about his estranged twin brother, Mitch, who is identical except for a purple birthmark that disfigures half his face. An Olympic swimmer, Mitch has achieved heroic status swimming on behalf of good causes worldwide.

Early in Envy, Will opens an unfortunate line of inquiry with a lover from 25 years ago at a college reunion. Their conversation leads to a series of events that snare Will onto a path that connects the past and the present in twisted, painful ways. The reader learns there are secrets, and we see new secrets being created -- sizzling sexual secrets. The more Will struggles in his situation, the tighter the noose, the greater his immobilization, until the rope of events snaps and the story reaches an unexpected -- albeit slightly unsatisfactory -- resolution.

The plot is moved along by the sexually frank-to-a-fault, highly contemporary character of Jennifer, a nail-biting, multiple-pierced literary cousin of Monica Lewinsky, who introduces the old-fashioned Will to the wonders of new lubricants and regales him with descriptions of perfectly calibrated sexual acts. Also assisting the exposition is Will's father, a photographer, and Will's psychiatrist mentor, Daniel.

There is a lot of talk in Envy -- smart and highly educated, with many references to pop culture and art significant to baby boomers and their tribe. All the talk befits a book that is in many ways multiple-layered, top-level psychological sleuthing, a kind of psychic whodunit. What occurs among the characters is considerably less riveting than what occurs within them. For Harrison, this creates the challenge of solving a largely ruminative mystery.

Harrison takes us on a deep-sea dive, not a dog paddle, and we can't help wondering how we will find the surface again. But Harrison is so gifted, with such a true eye and voice, that she pulls us to the surface without giving the reader the bends. Her hyper-focused imagery is fresh and astonishing, and it is the breathtaking aliveness of her descriptions of environments -- exterior and interior -- that carry the reader through to a satisfactory end.

Envy is a deep inquiry into the nature of personal identity and how the mirrors of those around us form our identity. This same quest is at the core of The Kiss, which described her seduction at the age of 20 by her narcissistic father. Readers familiar with The Kiss will be struck by the many similarities between the two books.

Because of the high-voltage subject matter of Harrison's books, it's easy to miss the forest for the trees. Existential angst, incest, sexual deviance, self mutilation dominate the foreground of an anguished landscape. This is not happy territory. Her characters act out of urge and obsession, blindly seeking intimacy and love.

Harrison's dark night has given her superhuman powers of observation and significant poetry in her prose But one can't help wishing Harrison would turn her laser-like focus more often to gentler, happier themes. When we ask why Harrison would choose to paint these bleak landscapes, the answer is because she must. Her impulse is to find the heart of her identity. The themes she explores are central to her being.

Still, Harrison provides a kind of happy discovery in the resolution of Envy that intellect is ultimately ineffective at parsing human experience into understandable, easily digested chunks. And that the single most important truth in our lives is the valuable connections we make with each other.


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