On Sunset

Pub Date:   |   Archive Date: 16 Oct 2018

Member Reviews

On Sunset
A Memoir
by Kathryn Harrison
Doubleday Books
Biographies & Memoirs
Pub Date 02 Oct 2018
I am reviewing a coy of On Sunset through Doubleday and Netgalley:
Kathryn Harrison always knew that her family was eccentric, her family breached the bounds of the unconventional. Kathryn was raised largely by her grandparents in an outsized Tudor style home on the periphery of Bel-Air, which she thought of as ”Sunset” the kingdom that existed in her imagination., inhabited by the past and it's artifacts.

Kathryn’s grandparents were true wandering Jews!  Her grandparents had arrived in Los Angeles in the forties after leading globetrotting lives. Her Grandfather Harry Jacobs has been a fur trapper in Alaska, a soldier in the trenches during the Great War. As well as traveling salesman in a Model T.  Her grandmother Margaret Sassoon has lived a life of privilege as a member of a Jewish Merchant family in Shanghai even turning down offers to marry Russian Princes who were exiled by the revolution.  The family was supposed to sale the house due to failing finances in 1971, this book seeks to recover Kathryn's childhood in a way.

I give On Sunset five out of five stars!

Happy Reading!
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Never mind that we live in Los Angeles and that I was born in 1961; my childhood belongs to my mother's parents, who, in the way of old people, have returned themselves to their pasts, taking me along.

Kathryn Harrison writes a memoir giving a slice of her childhood, a surprisingly well-adjusted one considering some of the troubling family dynamics she's written about in other autobiographical books. On Sunset is centered around her maternal grandparents who raised her after her flighty young mother with a spending problem gave her up to them. The family's home on Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles is a strong presence, if not a kind of character of its own in this story, as the family struggles financially in later years and eventually has to let the house go, with all of the pain that kind of loss brings and the emotion tied up in a home, especially one seen from a child's perspective.

I've written before about my complicated feelings for Harrison - her ability to lay her inner and emotional lives completely bare and pick incidents and anxieties apart in meticulous detail sometimes hits too heavily, it can make a reader weary as much as her self-analysis is impressive and her confessions brave. But I think I enjoyed On Sunset the most among her work I've read.

It does have a heavy melancholy aspect, a feeling that pervades the nostalgia of looking back at one's childhood and the certain sadness that comes with being very close to grandparents, who we realize we'll have to say goodbye to much sooner than most others part with their parents.

Harrison's grandmother, Margaret, always heavily played up her youth as a "foreign aristocrat", very much entrenched in the British caste system she was born into and raised in. She was from the British-born, China-dwelling Jewish Sassoon family, with famed poet and World War I soldier Siegfried Sassoon on a branch of the family tree. She became Harrison's grandfather's second wife late in both their lives, after his first wife died and she seemed finally ready to settle down after immigrating to America. Their daughter was something of a surprise, and even more so when they found themselves raising their granddaughter. Harrison describes the strangeness of that situation, how it didn't seem odd to her - their Britishisms, the unusual snack food, the many old clocks in a house that never chimed in tandem (maybe because I also grew up with my grandparents in a house of clocks chiming off schedule that I connected with this story in an emotional way, but I think it holds a lot that will have a sentimental factor for certain similar readers.)

She loves her grandparents fiercely, and especially the stories of their lives. Her grandfather worked on the railroads in Alaska, among other adventurous endeavors, and they both have richly detailed, fascinating (even more so to a child) stories from their young lives abroad in the violent and pivotal twentieth century. Harrison fills in their carefully repeated stories with background history of the places, and knowing next to nothing about the British in China, I especially found these sections fascinating. The text is heavily enriched with personal photos, making it something truly of Harrison style - no author can quite lay a life bare like she does.

Even amidst her melancholy, often dark storytelling, interspersed with scenes from her childhood, interactions with her troubled mother, and the bittersweet love she had for her quirky but caring grandparents, there are some light, touchingly hilarious moments. She describes Christian Science, the religion her Jewish grandparents converted to in California, as "one of the handful of fin-de-siecle New Thought movements that eased assimilation while leaving Jesus at a comfortable remove." And her description of the winding, hairpin-turn drive to the house, where visitors are then greeted with a slippery, fall-prone entryway rug, was so cleverly written and funny.

I'm in awe of her writing abilities at times, which is why when I find myself confused about some passage or underwhelmed, it feels all the more so knowing what extraordinary writing she's capable of.

On how she prefers her imagination's rendering of her grandfather meeting his first wife in Alaska to the banal truth: There's an upright piano in the tent, and a movie flickering on canvas stirred by a breeze. But the movie is silent; no one plays the piano, the dark is filled with her voice. The dogs howl, the rivers break to pieces, mosquitoes whine and dive at ears and eyes, the audience fidgets and coughs on split log benches, but for him all there is, is the one voice, nothing else.

Memory and its unreliability, and the comparison of truth to tale are common themes, and despite being familiar ground they're well-woven into the story here, almost seamlessly.

It also contains one of the loveliest, most bittersweet endings of a book in recent memory, as she walks through the Sunset in memory a last time and takes note of the changes that memory has wrought:

The storm is over, the wind stilled, but flakes spin lazily down, and nothing can stop them. Bit by bit, the outlines of things disappear.

A story for nostalgic, sentimental types, must be able to endure some melancholy and a time-jumping narrative, but well worth it for some excellent writing and the life stories of two fascinating figures.
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The writing is littered with details and jumps around so it is hard to follow. I could not finish it.
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Often I wonder, why did an author bother to publish a memoir?  Not so with this fascinating story of being raised in the home of grandparents who have had incredible lives. It is delightful to hear about the very different backgrounds of the grandparents and the unlikely happenings that brought them together. 

Anecdotes, after anecdote, charmed me as a reader. I wanted more!

I am a huge fan of Harrison’s husband and I am glad that this very different novel totally enthralled me.  Hope there is a second volume, I would love to read about the rest of the story.
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Interesting story.. I have read some of her other books and this was ok. Her writing is always good but I enjoyed some of the others more.
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