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.