Envy by Kathryn Harrison


I have mad love for Kathryn Harrison. I think she’s a beautiful writer and she often tackles difficult subjects, train wrecks from which you can not turn away.

Envy is the story of psychoanalyst Will Moreland. The landscape of his life is pitted with estranged relationships (his identical – save for the brother’s wine-stain birthmark – twin, Mitch); death (his young son, Luke, killed in a boating accident) and a strained sexual relationship with his wife, Carole (they still do it, but not face to face and Will isn’t allowed to touch her).  From these more-connected-than-you-think threads, Harrison weaves a story which is often funny, sometimes creepy, and slightly over-wrought (particularly near the end).

The novel opens as Will is about to return to his alma mater  for his 25th reunion. He’s clearly not interested in the majority of his classmates. He’s on the lookout for two people in particular: his brother, whom he hasn’t seen since he married Carole 15 years ago and Elizabeth, his college girlfriend.  His brother is a no-show. Elizabeth is there, but their reunion brings to the surface a disturbing revelation.

There are elements of Envy which revisit  some of the themes Harrison has used before in her work: sex used as power, grief, incest. It’s one of the reasons why I like her work so much- she’s practically fearless. Still, I didn’t love this book. I understand Will is traumatized by the death of his young son. I understand that as a professional in the mental health field he’s likely to be less astute about his own feelings and motives, but Envy (for me at least) suffers under the strain of too much plot. For instance, I liked Will’s dad, but do I care about his extra-marital relationship or his second career as a photographer. Not particularly.

And I didn’t like the ending all that much.  Some pretty devastating things happen in this novel, yet Carole and Will seem to move past it all almost effortlessly.  Since the book is told entirely from Will’s point of view, Carole’s feelings about the loss of her son, her struggles to carry on, her own traumatic experiences are exposed only in dialogue and only at the very end. On the other hand, Will examines and re-examines his feelings, sort of distantly and myopically, though. Sometimes I just wanted to see him as  a middle-aged man trying to do his best. And who, might I ask, is paying the least bit of attention to Samantha, the couple’s surving child?

Still, it’s Kathryn Harrison and I’ll take one of her books over just about anything else out there any day of the week.

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