• Story alerts
  • Letter to Editor
  • Pin it

Envy: A Novel by Kathryn Harrison. Random House, 2005; $24.95; 301 pages


Will, a Brooklyn psychoanalyst and almost-identical twin, has a good sex life-with the woman he married. So why then is he increasingly plagued by violent erotic fantasies that, were they to break out of his imagination and into the real world, have the power to destroy not only his family but his career? He's about to lose his grip when he attends a college reunion and there discovers evidence of a past sexual betrayal, one serious enough that it threatens to overpower the present, even as it offers a key to Will's dangerous obsessions.Hypnotic, beautifully written, this mesmerizing novel by "an extremely gifted writer" (San Francisco Chronicle) explores the corrosive effect of evil -- and how painful psychological truths long buried within a family can corrupt the present and, through courage and understanding, lead to healing and renewal. "Like Scheherazade in the grip of a fever dream, Kathryn Harrison...has written one of those rare books, in language of unparalleled beauty, that affirm the holiness of life," said Shirley Ann Grau, about Poison. And the same can be said about Envy.


The Boston Globe: Estranged twins, one of them deformed. Grief, betrayal, and deviant sex. Here, in Envy, are the elements of a great Gothic summer read. In the cool, elegant hands of Kathryn Harrison, though, they mark the boundaries of something more complex, though no less entertaining.

Newsday: Will, a married therapist, is tormented to distraction by sexual fantasies, often about his female patients. His marriage has been, in many ways, a happy, even sexy one -- but since the accidental death of their son, Luke, two years ago, Will and his wife, Carole, have been drifting apart. Neither understands the other's response to the tragedy. She wants to send out the family Christmas card as they have every year; he's horrified that she can't recognize that everything has changed. Disturbingly, Carole now refuses to have sex face-to-face.

The couple's life is haunted, as well, by another absence: that of Will's twin brother, Mitch, a world-renowned swimmer. The twins were close as children and looked exactly alike, but Mitch has a birthmark covering much of his face, and Will does not. The characters, their conflicts and their conversations do seem real, and their story, however improbable, will keep you turning the pages.

New York Observer: Ms. Harrison resumes the succulent munching of forbidden fruit in her new novel, Envy. Quadruple betrayal sounds like a surgical procedure; in fact, it's the stuff of a rich and complex summer read.

The New York Times: Kathryn Harrison is a wonderful writer. It seems important to get that on the table right away, since for most readers, her name will elicit one fact: Kathryn Harrison wrote a memoir about having slept with her father. Back in 1997, that notoriously hyper-publicized book, The Kiss -- in which she recounted an affair she had in her 20s with the father she had not seen since she was a child -- set critics scratching furiously at the welts it raised in the culture, largely neglecting the book in the process for its lurid cover story.

The book's muted family problems become elements in a Greekish tragedy, one filled with the tropes of sexual violation for which Harrison is best known. It's like one of those souvenir 1950's pens that tilt upside down to strip an innocent cheesecake model to her pornographic double, and Harrison's witty, lucid, poetic sentences do carry us quite a long way through passages rife with the kind of ickiness bound to alienate some readers and rivet others.

The Washington Post: Chances of good literary fiction finding an audience are...damaged when books such as Kathryn Harrison's Envy are published and passed off as worthy.


Born in 1961 in Los Angeles and reared there, Ms. Harrison was raised primarily by her maternal grandparents. She received her MFA from the Iowa Writers School. She is the author of the novels The Seal Wife, The Binding Chair, Poison, Exposure: A Novel, and Thicker Than Water. She has also written the memoirs The Kiss and The Mother Knot; a travel memoir, Road to Santiago; a biography, Saint Therese of Lisieux; and a collection of essays, Seeking Rapture: Scenes from a Woman's Life. She lives in New York with her husband, the novelist Colin Harrison, and their three children.


I asked Ms. Harrison, not a practicing Catholic, how she happened to write the biography of Thérèse de Lisieux for the Penguin Lives series. "The editor of the series called, asking about a possibility of my doing biographies in the series. I was delighted because I thought it was a fun series and people had done some great work in this series. But when he told me who it was -- Thérèse de Lisieux, also known as 'The Little Flower' -- I thought, 'My God.' Because she had in truth been the saint that I had loathed the most growing up (Ms. Harrison attended Catholic school), just because she always seemed like such a 'goody two shoes.'

"'The Little Flower,' the whole thing I found a little nauseating...but I thought about it and then everybody kept saying, 'Oh no, don't do it, don't do it. Oh, don't do it.' For various reasons they said that. 'They don't pay enough for the work,' or, 'You get all bogged down doing the research and it eats up so much time.' And then being perverse I said, 'Yes,' because I thought, 'to loathe someone is to love someone.'

"But soon I was won over to her. I have a picture of her on my wall. She's a very interesting, mysterious person."

"So, Envy."

Ms. Harrison said that she'd been out of touch with her agent for a while, but her agent mentioned that some reviewers of Envy did not like the book. Most reviewers, she was too modest to say, do admire Envy.

  • Story alerts
  • Letter to Editor
  • Pin it


Sign in to comment

Win a $25 Gift Card to
The Broken Yolk Cafe

Join our newsletter list

Each newsletter subscription means another chance to win!