I find it so hard to write a review of this book that I can’t help but wonder how Kathryn Harrison wrote it. It was a New York Times bestseller when it was originally published in 1997 and has been read by many. The Kiss is a very disturbing story. It’s about incest. And betrayal. And mental illness. And a “man of God” who was anything but. But mainly it’s Kathryn’s story* and how she negotiated growing up and learning how to be a woman. She accomplished it–painfully–in the midst of predation and neglect and without even a pretense of protection from anyone. The writing is hypnotic, reflecting the way Kathryn felt drugged or poisoned by events and by the power of her father’s personality. The tense is present, making the reader feel as if events are happening “right now” and “always and forever.”
One of the fascinating things about this book has been the response of critics and readers. It tends to polarize people. There are many who sympathize greatly with Kathryn for what she went through and others who wonder why she was compliant. There are others who question her motives for making her family’s story public. People who despise the tell-all nature of many memoirs villify her for exposing a taboo subject.
My task, as always, is to see what I learned from the book. The book’s arc seems to take an odd twist. It begins with how the father developed as such an obsession in Kathryn’s mind. She grew up without him in her life, witnessing him in the house as if he were a ghost. The story continues by showing how Kathryn was caught like a fly in the father’s web when they met as adults. And, finally, it moves to how their relationship ended. But the twist is that, near the end, the relationship with the mother is made central. There is a forgiving and coming-together of mother and daughter when the mother is dying. The book is dedicated to the mother: Beloved 1942-1985.
Because the book was so successful, I have to conclude that it is possible to twist and tweak to give a story the sort of long-range perspective the writer desires. Nevertheless, I wasn’t persuaded. The mother was not presented positively. She abandoned her daughter to be brought up by a mentally ill grandmother. Is that forgiveable? Forgiveable enough to make the book about the mother?
Or is the forgiveness on Kathryn’s part because Kathryn realizes that as her father ruined her life, he had done so with her mother’s?
I don’t think there can be a satisfying ending in the face of the tragedy that occurs in the book. But I am wondering if the through-line of the book is damaged or distorted by trying to make it “about the mother” at the end.
Have you read the book? If so, what do you think about the storyline?
Flawed or not, it’s a book you will never forget.
* I purposefully rely on Kathryn’s first name here to give her a breathing presence because of all she went through as a child and young woman.