Kathryn HARRISON has an uncanny habit of pinning to the page, as if they were exotic specimens, real and fictional characters driven by the most poisonous of human impulses.
She has explored father-daughter incest in fiction (her 1991 first novel "Thicker Than Water") and memoir (her spare 1997 book "The Kiss," in which she writes of a secret four-year sexual relationship begun when she is 20 with a long-absent father). She has written eloquently about the ambivalence of the mother-daughter bond ("The Mother Knot," 2004). Whether set in 17th century Spain, on the Alaskan frontier, in turn-of-the-last-century Shanghai or contemporary New York, her novels have a common theme: the mysteries of possession and betrayal, the compelling perversity of the erotic imagination. Her sixth novel mixes incest, obsession, family secrets and betrayal into a toxic quagmire.
"Envy" begins quietly enough, with two former lovers meeting at a college reunion. Will, a psychoanalyst, and Elizabeth, who heads a hospital burn unit, have not seen each other in 25 years. But in the reunion book, Will reads that Elizabeth has a 24-year-old daughter he suspects may be his. He looks for Elizabeth at the reunion, questions her, requests a bit of hair for a DNA test. She resists.
Will already has lost one of his two small children, his only son, Luke. The boy drowned at age 10 in a boating accident with Will. Several years have passed, but Will still is frozen in grief and guilt. In the aftermath of Luke's death, he and his wife, Carole, have never fully resumed their happy, lusty sex life; when they do have sex, Carole refuses to let Will see her face or give her pleasure. Punishing him, he assumes.
Will seems a loving, responsible father, husband and therapist. But seeing Elizabeth and fantasizing about another child exacerbates his alienation from Carole and opens up his own neediness, which soon erupts in an unseemly manner. He begins to have erotic fantasies about and become physically aroused by his patients.
In particular, he becomes obsessed with a new one -- a seductive young woman with a penchant for older men who brings him detailed descriptions of her sexual exploits. His relationships with his wife, his young daughter, Samantha (who gets short shrift in the novel) and his father, who is separated from his mother and living nearby with a younger woman, fade in the face of this explosion of erotic force.
Soon, the patient sets her sights on Will. He stops treating her and tells his troubles to his only confidant, his own analyst, Daniel. Despite his best intentions, he finds himself lured into a highly ritualized sexual encounter with her, at the end of which she informs him that she is Elizabeth's daughter and he is one of four men who might be her father.
Within six months of the college reunion, Will has become "not only an adulterer but possibly an incestuous father, a man whom almost every culture throughout all time would recognize as a criminal breaker of taboo. His chronic fear of seducing a patient has been obliterated by a new set of terrors resulting from having been seduced by a patient."
There are so many taboos at stake here. Sex between a psychiatrist and patient. Sex between a father and daughter. (Will is at first blind to the possibility of paternity, Elizabeth's daughter the active one who manipulates him into sex.)
Harrison's penetrating focus here is on envy, an unconscious, aggressive, even murderous emotion. Will envies his wife's serene way of grieving and his father's easygoing approach to life. He even envies his twin brother, Mitch, born with an irremediable birthmark covering half his face, always the less socially graceful of the two. But Mitch has become a famous endurance swimmer featured in People magazine. The brothers have not seen each other since the eve of Will's marriage to Carole 17 years before. Young Luke idolized this missing uncle, putting posters of his swimming exploits on his bedroom wall, fascinated by this man bearing his father's face except for the vivid splash of purple that to Luke puts him in a league with Spider-Man and the Incredible Hulk.
In a shattering series of scenes, Will learns that for years an envious Mitch has found increasingly destructive ways to poison or destroy his brother's relationships with the women in his life. Will's discoveries of the secrets kept by those closest to him, including his wife and parents, bring the novel to a showy conclusion in which Harrison executes the literary equivalent of a triple axel in the taboo realm, even coming up with a fraternal twist.
Will's understated reactions and the gently paced denouement of "Envy" are not always as believable as the delicious ironic conceit at the center of Harrison's complex and highly crafted novel -- the psychoanalyst blindsided by his own demonic shadow. *