Thicker Than Water


Isabel is the troubled daughter of charismatic but reckless parents who hastily wed, divorced just as fast, and distanced themselves from each other–and their child. Left to her grandparents’ care, Isabel longs for her remote, glamorous mother and for a father who is a fading memory. Unable to control her agony, Isabel rebels in perverse and dangerous ways. A captivating novel that gives new meaning to Freud’s “family romance,” Thicker Than Water vividly illuminates the fragile line between love and the darker sides of passion


“A story of obsession, selfishness, lust and despair, Harrison’s accomplished first novel deals with a dysfunctional family and the enduring psychic damage inflicted on a child. The narrator, Isabel, tells of growing up in L.A., the product of a brief teenage union between a vain, paranoid, destructive girl from an eccentric, wealthy, Jewish family, and a warped, brutal youth with a “heritage of Catholic poverty.” Emotionally abandoned by both parents (she is brought up by grandparents; her mother lives nearby but withholds intimacy; she doesn’t see her father until her adolescence), Isabel accepts perverse ways of earning their favor. . . Equating pain with endearment, and sexual submissiveness and degradation with sanctification, Isabel pleads for a declaration of love from her mother as the latter dies of cancer, but is denied even that succor. Harrison relates this story in hypnotically intense prose.”–Publishers Weekly

“Harrowing. . . it not only succeeds in conveying the horrors that parents may inflict upon their children, but. . . manages to wring from its heroine’s story the hope and possibility of transcendence.” Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times

“Fascinating. . . Harrison describes twisted family mechanics with a stylish intensity that gives the grimness meaning.” The Boston Globe

“A brilliant, overheated first novel simmering with everything one wouldn’t want to know about a faily: incest, obsession, revenge. . . “ San Francisco Chronicle

“Beautifully written, unsparingly honest.” The New York Times Book Review

“A boldly distinctive voice. . . both lyrical and depth-plumbing, a voice charged with intensity and informed by psychological truths. . . Remarkable.” Newsday

“Accomplished. . . a devastatingly understated twiting of taboos.” Entertainment Weekly

“Harrison handles difficult scenes with intelligence and startling understatement. . . a mesmerizing debut.” Express

Books of The Times;
Yearning to Be Normal Beneath a ‘Normal’ Veneer


“I still have a file of photographs which I saved from the brief time that I knew my father,” says Isabel, the narrator of Kathryn Harrison’s devastating first novel. “They are pictures that he gave me, snapshots of his family, ordinary fragments from which it is possible to reconstruct a life: his children, their mother, the dog, his car parked in front of their house, birthdays, holidays. Together they make an unremarkable collection, moments stolen from an average family.”

On the surface, perhaps, Isabel’s childhood and adolescence might also appear unremarkable. She lives with her grandparents in an oversize Tudor cottage in Bel Air. As a young girl, she remembers helping her grandmother paste Blue Chip stamps in redemption books and watching their Persian cat’s kittens grow up. As a teen-ager, she enjoys experimenting with makeup and clothes, cultivating the perfect tan at the beach and driving the highways with the car radio blaring loud, silly songs. Isabel works hard at school, and is accepted by a good college.

There is a dark undercurrent, however, to this privileged Los Angeles life — an undercurrent of abuse, abandonment and incest that will leave Isabel with a yearning to be normal, a yearning “to be loved like other people are.” It is her story that Ms. Harrison tells with such candor and compassion in “Thicker Than Water.”

Isabel’s father, we learn, grew up poor in a small Arizona town, the middle child in a large Irish family. His father is an exterminator, driving a panel truck with sombrero-wearing cockroaches stenciled on its sides. He sends his favorite son to school in Los Angeles, hoping he will make something of himself. Eventually, that boy will grow up to become a small-town politician.

Isabel’s mother is one of those vain, selfish women who radiate a careless, capricious charm. The daughter of wealthy British expatriates, she has become accustomed to spending their money on designer shoes and expensive dresses. She regularly consults with a “white witch” who tells her that she was a nun in a previous life; she will later join the Roman Catholic Church.

“My mother was not yet 18 when she and my father married,” Isabel says. “They were totally unsuited to one another. In one of those metaphorically apt instances that fate provides, they met at an amateur production of Oliver Goldsmith’s ‘She Stoops to Conquer, or The Mistakes of a Night.’ They were teen-agers, each attending the play with his and her high school English class.”

The newlyweds move in with Isabel’s mother’s family, but their marriage does not last. Isabel’s father soon disappears, and it’s not long before Isabel’s mother also finds an apartment of her own, leaving her own mother to care for the child she never really wanted. “I did not know where my mother lived,” Isabel says. “I saw her each day, but she was so protective of her privacy, her fragile illusory freedom, that not until years later did she reveal her address, or even her phone number.”

As a young child, Isabel is routinely abused by her mother, but she learns to worship this elusive, mercurial woman. She wants to please her mother, to somehow win her love.

It is when Isabel is 18 years old, and her mother is dying of breast cancer, that her father resurfaces in her life, pledging to make up for years of neglect. He takes her to visit his family and that night rapes her in his mother’s basement guest room. He will continue to have sex with her for two years, until the day of her mother’s funeral.

Isabel’s acquiescence in these events, she later suggests, stems from a habit of “sexual submissiveness and degradation” learned at the hands of her mother, as well as a need, shared with her father, to settle old scores with this woman who played such a pivotal role in their lives. “I allowed myself the consolation,” she says, “of taking from my mother the only thing she said she had ever cared for: my father’s love.”

As related by Isabel, these gothic, Freudian events shock the reader into an awareness of the destructive consequences of misplaced passions and warped familial love. It is a story written in hallucinatory, poetic prose, yet a story that possesses the harrowing immediacy — and visceral impact — of a memoir. Indeed, there is almost no authorial distance between Isabel and her creator, almost no indication that this is a novel we’re reading.

Acutely conscious of the ways in which the past shapes the present, Ms. Harrison writes with skill, passion and a fierce need to make sense of her characters’ lives. What is remarkable about her book is that it not only succeeds in conveying the horrors that parents may inflict on their children, but that it also manages to wring from its heroine’s story the hope and possibility of transcendence.




With no disrespect to Steve Martin, “Thicker Than Water” is a true L.A. story. This is the story that is repeated after school on clean bed spreads in little girls’ rooms between brooding about lipstick and nail polish, making prank calls and getting dressed up in outlandish outfits.

This is the certain kind of story that unfolds in nice houses above Sunset Boulevard — this particular time in Stone Canyon, right there in Bel-Air — during long afternoons when teen-age girls giggle. But out beyond the bedroom door, the reality is hideous, too hideous to encompass. In its horrifying familiarity, it feels just like home.

Isabel (whose name we don’t catch until halfway through this story) lives in Stone Canyon with her grandparents. Isabel summers in La Jolla, goes with her girlfriend’s parents to the Self Realization Fellowship Temple down on Sunset Boulevard by the beach.

Isabel stays home and pastes in Blue Chip Stamps. She watches the Jackie Gleason Show with her grandfather. She longs to be a June Taylor Dancer. She goes to a good prep school.

But here’s the other story. Her mother, beautiful, well bred, of European-Jewish extraction, met a white trash kid when she was 16, got pregnant, got married and dumped the guy — who went to live out in the Mojave Desert in Needles. The mother stays at home until she quarrels with her own parents and goes to live in a tiny apartment, neglecting to leave her address or phone number. Isabel is 5.

It’s not that Isabel’s mother doesn’t come around. She does come around, on weekends, and gets ready for her elaborate dates. She won’t let Isabel sit on her lap, for fear she’ll get varicose veins.

She plays around with Isabel, but she molests her too, inserting things like tooth brushes when and where she shouldn’t. No one will ever know. Isabel will never tell. The question never even comes up.

And Isabel grows up just a little bit on the screwy side, starving herself, bashing her fingernails with stones, beating herself in secret, and later, dosing herself with an emetic, so that she will not only throw up after every meal but feel terrible while she’s doing it.

Anything to feel. Something.

Isabel’s grandmother tells her it’s OK to have a kid if she gets pregnant. Her mother takes her to get a diaphragm when she’s 15 and still a virgin. Isabel goes to the beach, and giggles, and shop lifts, while the single, serious, terrible, unspeakable fact remains totally intractable and unexplainable: Her mother can’t stand her.

On a “good” day, her mother never thinks of her at all. (And for those who think: Oh, just another story about someone whose mother didn’t love her, she had enough to eat, didn’t she? She has a swell roof over her head! She went to a good school! I remind you of the proverb: “Better a dinner of bitter herbs where love is, than a meal of stalled ox where there is no love at all.”)

The second half of this novel takes a terrible turn. The young and beautiful mother is felled by a particularly virulent cancer. Isabel’s father, wild-eyed from the desert and hideously vile, turns up. Isabel enters into a kind of self-destructive revenge that almost destroys her. Because anything goes in Los Angeles!

Behind the fragrance of eucalyptus; behind the neatly stacked expensive underwear; the forever-strange family photographs; the long, somnolent days at the beach; the La Brea tar pits; the sobbing kids on school buses, there remains this vibrating, awful fact: If your own mother detests you, she licenses you to be an outlaw. Your soul is lost; your life is damned.

This is the story of kids I went to high school with. This is the story of a particular California nightmare: The child who is born, in easy, even luxurious circumstances, and soon, way too soon, notices that her fate on Earth is to be discarded and loathed.

There should be a snappy ending to this review, but you know what? There’s no snappy ending to this kind of story. To tell it at all is the only (limited) triumph.


Unattainable Love

By Dan Cryer. Dan Cryer is Newsday book critic.

ANY NEW WRITER worth watching announces herself with a boldly distinctive voice. Kathryn Harrison’s first novel, “Thicker Than Water,” does so memorably, in a voice both lyrical and depth-plumbing, a voice charged with intensity and informed by psychological truths.The blood ties that are thicker than water, Harrison knows, are sacred yet scary, the love between parent and offspring sometimes more painful than comforting.

“Thicker Than Water” is a daughter’s ferociously disturbing first-person account of her unrequited love for her mother and the wretched entanglement her father offers in its place. It is, quite literally, a sensational story, yet one that Harrison tells absolutely without sensationalism, in the measured, carefully crafted language of the artist.

Isabel, the narrator, is the product of an early ’60s teenage love match between a working-class Arizona boy sent to a fancy Hollywood prep school and the old-moneyed Bel Air girl he meets at a school play. The young woman’s pregnancy results in a quick marriage followed shortly (since the bride’s family finds the groom unacceptable) by a divorce. The infant Isabel is left largely in the care of Mom-mom, her maternal grandmother.

Since Isabel’s mother is only 17, it’s little wonder that she – we never learn her name – is terrified of responsibility. Unfortunately for her daughter’s sake, she never grows in that regard. When the child is 5, she takes off, living with friends, storing her belongings in her old Pontiac, visiting now and then for a stiff embrace before an early departure. Little wonder, too, that Isabel feels permanently abandoned, deprived of the love that ought to be her birthright.

Isabel’s father eventually begins a new life in Needles in the desert near Arizona, complete with a family and a career as a small-town politician. His visits, infrequent during Isabel’s childhood, become more regular when she turns 18 and her mother is dying of breast cancer. What he brings, however, isn’t love but a forced sexual relationship that the emotionally battered Isabel is powerless to resist.

Harrison’s narrative structure is anything but straightforward. Conventional plot gives way to an arresting collage of vividly imagined vignettes, memories and dreams cutting back and forth between past and present.

This technique is very effective for casting a searchlight on Isabel’s pain. We see the young girl tenderly scraping off her mother’s sunburned back after she’s been away for two months in Jamaica; then, when she’s gone again, saving a patch of skin in a dresser drawer. We see her sneaking into her mother’s car to scrutinize the bizarre newspaper clippings of disaster and loss sent by her father, “love letters of a sort,” she wants to believe.

We see the adolescent Isabel endure bulimia and kleptomania. We see her shame before the mysteries of her developing body even as she prostrates herself before boys.

Of necessity, given the novel’s first-person point of view, the portraits of Isabel’s parents are not as vivid. Always, she gropes to discover who they are, to make connections, to evoke their unattainable love.

Why her mother cannot find her way despite early mistakes isn’t made clear. What we do know is that she is unfailingly self-centered and immature and an erratically desperate spiritual seeker, proceeding from Catholicism through transcendental meditation to New Age mysticism.

In those few moments in which we witness her father, he is motivated solely by a mad vengefulness against his wife’s family, manifest in the sexual abuse of his daughter. In this bleak ritual, he has in Isabel a kind of collaborator:

“He needed to hurt my mother, and so did I. I did have remorse but not enough to withstand the force of his heavy, grinding lust, and my guilt was ultimately insufficient to combat my own passivity, the paralysis of despair . . . I allowed myself the consolation of taking from my mother the only thing she said she had ever cared for: my father’s love.”

Still, Isabel cannot give up the hope of winning her mother’s love too. And so she ministers to the dying woman in the hospital and then at home.

Though these scenes – the stuff of many novels – lack a certain freshness, Harrison compensates with triumphantly radiant writing. Here, for instance, is Isabel’s mother undergoing radiation treatment:

“Mother on her altar cloth, the godlike eye of the machine regarding her from the ceiling mount. And I watching from a safe distance as the angelic rays, the cold invisible fire, penetrate to her heart, her soul. Matter can neither be created nor destroyed, and I am witness to the transubstantiation of the flesh that bore me.”

Harrison isn’t particularly adept at dialogue, it seems, but she skirts the problem with a meditative narrative that allows her to avoid it whenever possible. And in the end, when Isabel seems on the road to recovery, her creator invents a plot twist that is altogether too neat in its symmetry – making her, when she finally decides to bear a child, infertile.

These are quibbles, of course. Kathryn Harrison’s debut is remarkable. She makes of this immersion in pain fiction that gives great pleasure.