The Most Difficult Book Review

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.


Filed under Book Review, Creative Nonfiction, Memoir, Memoir writing theory, Nonfiction, Research and prep for writing, Writing

60 responses to “The Most Difficult Book Review

  1. It’s so sad to me that, in order to pen a best-seller, one has to have a horrifying story to tell. I am particularly sensitive to stories–true stories in particular–that depict those with mental disorders as monsters.

    • Do you think that’s always true? I think Zippy did pretty well and her story is anything but horrifying–sort of a slice of American life. And do you think Wild is all about the way Strayed went out of control when her mother died since most of it is the gruelling hike?
      Harrison doesn’t depict her father as a monster, but there is no getting over his monstrous actions, that is for sure.

  2. Wow. I am not sure I will be able to read this book (emotionally able, I mean), but I appreciate reading your take on it, which is thought-provoking in and of itself. I wonder if Kathryn really did have the level of closeness with her mother that the book depicts in the end or whether she thought a positive ending like that was necessary to round out the book somehow.

    • The scenes at the end with the mother are more along the lines of her making a sacrifice toward her mother (don’t want to write a spoiler here!) and framing it as an act of forgiveness and an offering seeking forgiveness, as well as a way for Kathryn to move beyond her old life. But I do wonder if she framed the whole book this way “to round out the book,” as you say, Sharon. Thanks for stopping by!

  3. It’s sad, yet this is the very thing that piques readers’ curiosity and compels them to buy the book. I must admit, your review has piqued mine and I probably will look into reading this. Thanks for sharing.

    • It’s true that it sounds like (and maybe is) almost a titillating story. Or like a train wreck you can’t look away from. But the book is also more than that.

  4. I am not familiar with Harrison’s book. The arc seems interesting, but I am on the fence about reading it. What did you think of the writing?

    • Rudri, I think that the arc is a good one to study for structure for memoir. Whether you end up thinking it works or not, the effort put into analyzing it, sheds like on the process of structuring a memoir.

  5. Luanne- I haven’t read the book but just put it on my TBR list. Incest is such a tricky subject. When I was working as a criminologist, I witnessed some pretty horrific incest situations. One in particular stands out: The mother’s boyfriend impregnated her 14 year old daughter. The daughter had the baby and the mother kept it at home while still living with her boyfriend! The daughter was placed in Youth Protection. I was working with her at the time and she said to me that she couldn’t understand why she had to leave home and not the boyfriend. Indeed, why?
    I see your point about painting the mother in a somewhat glorified way is disturbing. After all, she did abandon her daughter? But perhaps the author needed closure and that’s how she got it.

    • Carol, your story is so very very sad. I get so upset when people don’t put their kids first. I don’t see why they want to pass their own bad experiences forward. Yes, the mother abandoned her daughter, leaving her with the grandparents because she couldn’t deal with her parents, but why didn’t she take her daughter with her? Got your book in the mail!!!

  6. Wow, that WAS a tough book review…and a tough read. I’m not sure I want to tackle this one. But it is so interesting to analyze the way memoir writers craft their stories and why. The way the author arranges the story can say as much about the author as the words, I think. I guess it’s up to readers to decide what the arrangement says…sounds like this author is still disturbed, and why wouldn’t she be? What a horrible life! I feel sorry for her, but I am almost positive that writing the book was part of healing (even if the healing is not complete). That has definitely been the case for my writing and me.

    • LIndsey, I’m sure that it had to be a healing experience for her. Maybe that’s why the book ended up being about the mother–maybe she came to that realization that while her obsession seemed to be her father, it was really about her mother. That is possible.

  7. I appreciate your honest review, Luanne. I agree with you, a story such as this makes it difficult for a satisfying ending. Perhaps the author did forgive her mother in order to heal and provide closure to a horrific upbringing. I have a close friend who experienced something similar. She had to forgive in order to move on with her life. Of course, it required years of therapy.

    • Yes, lots and lots of therapy and then the writing. And I don’t think a book can come too close to the experience. There needs to be a lot of time processing what happened to one. It is possible that forgiving her mother was part of her healing process. That I can definitely understand. Thanks for your comments, Jill!

  8. This is not a book that I’d choose to read. The subject matter is too horrifying, especially if it is told in the present tense. I would not be able to keep myself at a safe distance. You mention that it is a book that you’ll never forget. That’s the part that I’m worried about… how the images would stay with me.

    That said, I enjoy your writing style and thank you for sharing your thoughts about this title.

    • Maggie, thank you so much for stopping by and sharing here, as well as your kind comments! I think I know what you mean about a safe distance. We have to protect ourselves. I like to challenge myself as much as possible, but there are some things that I do protect myself from, like covering my eyes or ears and running out of the room when those commercials with animal abuse come on the TV.

      • YES! Exactly those ads. Animal abuse and other types of tragedy and brutality is out there. I don’t want the images on my brain or in my memory. I don’t want to become toughened and immune to the impact. I want to remain sensitive to other’s pain.

        As you cited elsewhere here in the comments, I cannot help but think that *some* people are profiting by the clicks/impressions they receive by posting outrageous and horrific images online. The intent is not to raise awareness, but to increase their income. If it bleeds, it leads, sex sells, etc. etc.

  9. Ellen Morris Prewitt

    I continue to be impressed with your skill at analyzing the underlying structure of these memoirs. Pairing the structure with the story the writer wants to tell—even quite difficult stories like this one—is so important. In the process you are schooling us on memoir. When you put your memoir together, it is going to be amazing.

    • I remember writing a response here. I don’t know what happened to all my replies!! Thanks you so much for your kind comments, Ellen, but that is a lot of pressure haha! I will be happy to hear that my book is a good read! and even that is more than I can think about at this point! Yes, re “pairing the structure with the story the writer wants to tell”–so very important. I think it’s the most challenging part of writing a book, and it might be one of the most important parts.

  10. I am going to quote you for a blog post if you don’t mind. The buzz lately has been about emotional correctedness and how people have a right not to read what offends or hurts them internally. Your review sort of plays into that. I think stories like this, despite the the pain the produce, teach us things we might not have otherwise learned.

    • By all mean :)! Yes, I find I need to read hard things because otherwise I become too “soft” and can’t handle what I need to handle. I pride myself on being soft when it comes to others (and esp children and animals) and tough when it comes to myself, but it would be easy to stop toughening myself. Then how would I ever get through “stuff”?
      On the other hand or perhaps a related point, I’ve seen the musical Avenue Q several times recently (my daughter is in it) and there is a song called (I think) “Schadenfreude.” I didn’t know this word, but it’s explained in the show. What it means (if you don’ t know) is getting pleasure from the misfortune of others. The notion of that really really turns me off, but I do wonder if somehow it does make us feel better about our own lives when we read a sad story.

      • I am concerned about America’s request to be coddled.

        If we don’t read about the troubling stuff, how do we work towards coping, changing,

        I understand things like PTSD, but I don’t think books should come with trigger warnings. Or that student should be allowed not to read potentially disturbing stuff.

  11. Good for you in tackling this one, Luanne! I wish I had read the book so I could comment on the ending 😉 Best I can do is imagine that many commenting here may be right: she needed the closure and this is how she gave it to herself. Or, she could have been counseled by an agent or editor that the book wouldn’t be well-received (or would be received worse) if she didn’t work it back to her mother. Similar to how some movies have their endings changed to be more palatable to audiences.
    I do recall a fury of criticism when The Kiss came out, and it was enough to make me avoid the book (although your review has changed that). At the time I did wonder why people were making such a big deal when Kathryn and her father didn’t even meet until they were adults. Yes, the idea of having an affair with him is really creepy (and, frankly, more so coming from him), but it sounds like he took advantage of her psychologically. Why does anyone write a frank and sensitive memoir? Sure some writers do it for titillation and to push sales. But some I’m sure do it because they have a need to confront their life, to get catharsis, to help themselves and their readers to work through the ugliness of life. And who knows … maybe there’s another woman out there who had a similar experience to Kathryn and maybe now, if she read Kathryn’s book, she doesn’t feel alone anymore.

    • Marie, fabulous comments here! Yes, she probably did need that sense of closure and taking the focus off the father (who didn’t deserve it or anything) and placing it where she had love and neglect in one package. I love what you say about another woman, a reader, who really needs to read Kathryn’s book. I hope if somebody reads my review who is that woman rushes to the store to get the book. Do you remember the review I wrote for Catana Tully’s Split at the Root, about the island girl raised but not legally adopted by a German couple? There is something stunningly close to this that happens in that book when Catana meets her birth father. She handles the exchange much differently (but is older and grew up in a loving family) and she writes about it differently, too.

  12. corinnetrowbridge

    Luanne, your review itself is mesmerizing. While I know I will not read the book because of it’s difficult subject matter, I find I’m drawn to it. You give a compelling reason to look beyond the horror and see some redemption. Which as silly as it sounds, makes me happy I read your review!

    • Corinne, that is such a cool thing to say! Yes, redemption for sure! I’m really glad I read the book, but for a long time afterward I felt its grip on me. The writing style is kind of hypnotic and I still felt under its influence!

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  14. I enjoyed the book a lot. I didn’t feel like the ending was a twist, if anything it seemed that the story was always about the relationship with the mother and her relationship from her father was a strange consequence of that.

    • That’s an interesting way of looking with it. I was watching the through-line of the story, and I didn’t see it quite that way and the idea of her trying to work through things with her mother because she was dying might ring true for real life, how things happen, but as a book it made for a little wonky structure, I thought. gorskil, thanks so much for stopping by and sharing your thoughts. I went and visited your blog and review–very nice!

  15. Wilma

    Creepy and scary.

    Date: Thu, 29 May 2014 12:21:38 +0000 To:

  16. I’ll be adding it to my list. Thank you 🙂

  17. I haven’t read this one, probably won’t because it sounds too dark for me, but I appreciate the review as always!

    • Yes, it’s dark. There is no getting around that. The depths of human depravity that it showcases gives much the same feeling as when reading a Holocaust memoir, except here we have an isolated individual (the father) and not a machine of humans.

  18. Sounds like a very interesting read!

    • Anneli, interesting is one word for it! And I should clarify that the book is beautiful prose. But it’s a dark cloud to work through . . . .

  19. Very sad, twisted topic and a very brave writer. I haven’t read this memoir, however, I will try to get a copy. Your review is excellent, Luanne.

    • Lynne, yes, when you read it, please let me know what you think about the structure and about the book in general. I actually think the writing style is right up your alley–very lyrical and hypnotic.

      • Have you read, Miriam Toews, All My Puny Sorrows? It is fiction however based on Toew’s life experiences. As well, Toews has a memoir written in her father’s “voice,” Swing Low. I think that you would like, All My Puny Sorrows. Toews style is witty, funny, and poignant- a beautiful mix.

        • I have not, but it’s going on my list. Thanks for the tip!

          • I really liked the story and I suspect from all I’ve read by Toews that the novel mirrors the author’s life experiences. The topic is difficult for some, the character’s sister wants to end her life. Toews style is witty, at times a bit slapstick, and then she leaves you with a sentence that takes your breath away. It is a beautiful story.

  20. Dear Luanne, I read The Kiss shortly after it came out in 1997. I was riveted by the brilliance of Harrison’s ability to edit, and have never found another one’s writing as precise as hers. Her precision is hypnotic to say the least, and one has to read the book more than once to understand the nuances. Harrison gave me the courage to write about my falling in love with my birthfather when I met him. Of course, as you say, I was much older thus able to keep the distance. Your review was spot on and I can imagine, for sure as you say that it was tough to work through the issues and go to the very dark places the author takes the reader. Great job! And keep those reviews coming; I may not comment every time, but I certainly read them all. Great blog!

  21. It is a difficult subject to review, to discuss and to ‘like.’ I found the year and a half with 180 children at a battered women’s shelter to be quite an impact on my life. I have lots of stories, where sometimes the mothers were ‘wrong,’ in their choices. I remember the compelling words that my director gave me when she chose me to be the one to represent the children, The Child Advocate position: “Try not to place your own preconceptions, values or opinions upon any of the families you meet and interact with. Try to listen and understand, without judgment.” Wow! That was so hard to do! As in this case of the book, hard to want to read it, but a story that had to be ‘told.’ Great post, Luanne!

    • Robin, I would love to read a book with 180 (or maybe fewer LOL) different short-shorts about these children, each with his or her own story. That has got to be beyond difficult to see what goes on and remain without judgment. I imagine the judgments would come through in ways that would be destructive to the children and the relationships within families. But as society if we never have judgments, then anything goes, right? Ugh, yes, so so difficult.

  22. I missed this book the first time around — thanks for calling it to my attention with such a thoughtful review. (Great comments too, btw.) A major viewpoint character in my novel in progress is a sixth-grader who was incested by her stepfather some years before and is being threatened by him again. It’s the biggest challenge I’ve ever set myself as a writer. Not because of the subject — over the last 40+ years I’ve heard dozens, maybe hundreds, of first-person stories from friends and acquaintances about being incested as kids, raped as adults, beaten by husbands and boyfriends, etc., etc. I’ve read books like Voices in the Night: Women Speaking about Incest and I Never Told Anyone.

    But I flinch away from imagining myself into the body of a minor child who’s threatened NOW — even though I grew up with an alcoholic mother and a psychologically (but not physically) abusive father. Minors have no power, and when they need to be protected from the adults who are supposed to be protecting them? They’re helpless. I’ve given my young protagonist a big advantage: a trustworthy adult friend who survived a violent upbringing herself. Still, the mind flinches away, the way my hand refuses to touch a red-hot burner.

  23. Susanna, thank you for sharing your thoughtful comments. It sounds like you have read a lot about the subject. I actually have never heard (or remember hearing) a verb form of incest. Is that how the women in the books describe it? You have so well described the feeling I get from a topic like this: “the mind flinches away, the way my hand refuses to touch a red-hot burner.” Our reflex is to try to protect ourselves immediately! Phenomenal. And your book sounds intriguing.

  24. Luanne I feel these kind of books have a place in the world especially if they can help someone going through a painful horrific thing like this. I don’t think I have the strength to read it myself so thanks for the review.

    • I think you’re right that this book is so important for someone going through something similar. It’s also helpful for the rest of us to understand what it’s like to be “that girl,” and I think it would reduce a judgmental viewpoint to see inside her emotions. Thanks for sharing your viewpoint :)!

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