Readers familiar with novelist Harrison’s previous transfixing memoirs, from The Kiss (1997) to True Crimes (2016), may think that by now the well of stories about her Los Angeles childhood has run dry. Not so. It turns out that the lives of her maternal grandparents, who raised her as her young, profligate mother ran amok, are fairy-tale fascinating, profoundly revealing of cultural divisions, and brilliantly and wittily told as Harrison channels her young, inquisitive self.
...a touching and at times jaw-dropping portrait of the maternal grandparents who raised her ... Harrison has written about her unusual family and Los Angeles childhood before, but never in such specific — and fascinating — detail ... Harrison paints a vivid picture of an anachronistic childhood in which The Brady Bunch, Barbies, peanut butter and sliced bread were out, while curtsies, cod liver oil, Marmite and liverwurst on little rounds of baguettes were in ... What emerges is a poignant portrait of a smart, anxious young girl ... Impressively, On Sunset — richly illustrated with photographs and personal documents — adds up to more than just sepia-tinged nostalgia for a world on which the sun set long ago.
All memoirs are, by definition, collections of the past, but few interrogate it quite like Kathryn Harrison's On Sunset. What sets Harrison apart is that the past was her native land, even as she was living it. Raised by a pair of deeply eccentric old-world grandparents in a sprawling house on Sunset Boulevard, Harrison existed in a childhood out of time and place, seemingly unbound from her era ... The family history is undeniably rich, and there are moments of great vibrance, but the passages sometimes slip into tedium, like being asked to flip through someone else's heirloom photo album for the second or third time. The incantation of names and places grows old, and the reader can feel a bit like a ping-pong ball, pulled through time and space without any particular sense of overarching narrative motion. But Harrison is nothing if not a magnificent writer, and there is something deeply satisfying about her sentences.
As with the best stories, whatever the genre — fiction, nonfiction, fairy tale — it turns out On Sunset is more than one thing: not simply nostalgic, but tinged with anticipated sorrow and grief. Harrison’s touch is light (she’s a gorgeous writer), but, finally, notwithstanding the age of the narrator, her book is for grown-ups, and its adult concerns extend beyond the fate of a house ... On Sunset, as wise and all-seeing as it turns out to be, is also a mostly happy story. One which I am wholly grateful to have read, and whole-heartedly recommend. It will, as with the best, make you laugh and cry. And it will make you remember how it was to be a child. And that children are listening. And that whatever we tell ourselves for whatever reasons, we tell each other stories in order to live.
I’ve got to hand it to Kathryn Harrison. She’s a prolific, smart and fearless writer ... 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 ... 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.
Received 'as an unexpected late-life child' meant to balance out the 'misdeeds' of her mother, a beautiful but irresponsible young woman with an insatiable obsession for designer shoes, Harrison lived with her grandparents in a big house on Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles ... Blending family history and mythology, anecdotes and photographs, this book is not simply one woman’s open love letter to two magnificently eccentric grandparents; it is also a testament to the enduring power of memory ... A poignant and eloquent memoir.
...As the author retells her grandparents’ reminiscences, she also shares glimpses of her 'Victorian' upbringing (seven p.m. bedtime, no Barbie dolls). Her 79-year-old grandfather constructed a reading chair for her atop a 'fey and fairy-dusted' avocado tree and shared stories of his youth in London, his apprenticeship to a Berlin cabinet maker, his becoming a member of the Hussars calvary, and his move to Canada, where he became an engineer. Her grandmother, meanwhile, told her of being born to Jewish merchants, living in Shanghai as a privileged girl and taking the Trans-Siberian Express through post-revolution Russia to boarding school in London; she also told of jilting a groom at the altar. Evocative and tender, this delightful memoir pairs the distant past with a safe and sacred time in the author’s young life.