REVIEW: A Fine Kathryn Harrison Memoir, this One Without Father-Daughter Incest

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On Sunset: A Memoir Kathryn Harrison

Doubleday 288 pp.

By Ann Fabian

I’ve got to hand it to Kathryn Harrison.  She’s a prolific, smart and fearless writer.  The Kiss, the 2010 memoir that chronicled her long sexual relationship with her father, catapulted her to best-seller fame.  That book sits high on my list of disturbing memoirs.  Harrison was 20 when she met up with her long-absent father and the two began a consensual affair. 

That is, if you can ever imagine father-daughter incest as exactly consensual.  Count me among the prudes.  The Kiss is a creepy book.   

Harrison and her father traveled through that peculiar American sexual landscape of airport lounges and roadside motels.  She’s smart enough to know their affair crossed into the territory Vladimir Nabokov imagined for Humbert Humbert and Lolita.  But Nabokov made up that story; Harrison remembered hers.  Readers of The Kiss gasped at the hypocrisy of the seductive abuser who passed himself off as a “man of God.” But we marveled at Harrison’s aplomb.  Incest? Taboo?  Whatever.

Harrison has published seven novels, a book of true crime, two biographies and five fragments of her autobiography.   Even with all those books, it’s hard for her to escape The Kiss.  A marketing ploy, maybe, but there it is right on the front cover of her new book, “On Sunset: A Memoir by Kathryn Harrison, author of The Kiss.   So I picked up On Sunset, wondering what it would tell me about how Harrison grew up to be such a good writer and grew into that young woman okay with having sex with her father. 

Harrison was born in Los Angeles in 1961.  Her mother, briefly married to the “man of God,” was about 19.   In this book, her mother buys shoes, has lovers, and drives off with a wave, down Sunset Boulevard.  The father made one brief appearance in Harrison’s childhood.  With these descriptions maybe Harrison means to suggest that her father’s absence and her mother’s departures helped set her up as a willing victim of her father’s seduction.  

Harrison’s maternal grandparents raised her in fading splendor in a mid-century house at 11027 Sunset Boulevard.   On Sunset is the story of the three of them, set in the late 1960s and early 1970s.  Memory and time are keys to this story, as Harrison peels back five decades of her life to get us to her California girlhood and back to what she learned then of her grandparents’ lives.  She’s an appealing prepubescent girl narrator.

Harrison’s grandmother, born in 1899, was a descendant of the sprawling Sassoon family, Baghdadi Jews whose 19th-century mercantile fortune sustained her in dwindling splendor through much of the 20th century.  Her branch of the family settled in Shanghai, profited from the opium trade, sent daughters to school in London and maintained villas filled with servants in the south of France.  The grandmother escaped Europe in 1939, one of just 132,000 Jews allowed into the United States during the years of the Second World War. 

The twentieth-century’s wars and revolutions gnawed into her privileged life.  Minor celebrities and faded aristocrats passed through it.  Relatives flouted their sexual adventures: sister Cecily bedding her two women lovers and alienating the family jewels as a misdirected bequest, cousin George housing handsome young spongers at the Plaza Athénée.

Harrison’s grandfather, born nine years earlier, grew up in London, singing in music halls and developing a way with numbers.  At the turn of the 20th century, he worked as an accountant in Gold-Rush Alaska and served in a Canadian regiment in the First World War.  He came to United States to sell fancy topcoats and met Harrison’s grandmother in California in the early 1940s.  

He was surprised by fatherhood once, Harrison writes, when her mother was born in 1942 and again in 1961, when Harrison was born.  He was 71.  He taught Harrison many things and her recognition of the aging of this loving patient man gives Harrison’s story its sense of loss.  Snapshots, scrapbooks, letters, and diaries prompt her memories, but in the first half of the book we learn her grandparents’ stories through a granddaughter’s questions, through Harrison’s memories of the kinds of conversations that turn individual stories into family legends.

She needles her grandparents. “Tell me about the penny.  Say what you bought with one penny.”  “Say about the tooth on the pivot.”  “Say the rivers.” “What’s a lighter?”  “What’s a commission”  “What’s a smudge?” “What did the Indians do about the mosquitoes?” “Tell me about your hair, about how long it was, and how the barber cried.”  “How can you want to hear a thing a hundred times?”  Of course, she did.     

Did these conversations actually take place just as she describes them?  Was Harrison a nine-year-old armed with a reporter’s notebook?  Of course not.  But the delight of this book lies in her relationship with these grandparents—marvels of experience, patience and knowledge whose stories set her off to become a writer.

Their stories also gave her a love of language, pleasure in the curious words that preserved a trace of her family’s old-world splendor.  What’s a sponger, a frum, a parapet, dropsy, a retinue, upper crust, steerage?  And then what must have been a child’s delight in just being able to say galloping consumption, shanghaied, idée fixe, bête noir, Hispano-Suiza, malicious mesmerism and Dichondra. 

For all its quirks, Harrison’s upbringing had markings of a conventional Los Angeles childhood.  We all went to the La Brea Tar Pits, the Griffith Park observatory, the Farmer’s Market and the Santa Monica pier.  We didn’t all have a Sassoon fortune behind us, but we all had days, months and years when we didn’t fit in, when our parents and grandparents gave us phrases no one else knew and our family stories didn’t quite align with what seemed the drift of American culture.

Harrison’s story is ordinary and extraordinary. She conjures a wonderful girl’s voice to capture the peculiar misalignments of her family.  On Sunset is a loving story that just might redeem what was hateful in The Kiss.


Ann Fabian is president of the Society of American Historians.