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A darkly layered, beautifully told tale of estranged twins

By Kathryn Harrison
Random House, 301 pp., $24.95

Estranged twins, one of them deformed. Grief, betrayal, and deviant sex. Here, in ''Envy," are the elements of a great Gothic summer read. In the cool, elegant hands of Kathryn Harrison, though, they mark the boundaries of something more complex, though no less entertaining.

Harrison's career has been marked by effortless movement between memoir and novel, although ''effortless" is not quite the word to describe the experience of reading her. Harrison's narratives don't carry her readers along as much as demand they march forward, into psychic landscapes at once familiar and foreign, intimate and chilling, beautiful and frightening. ''Envy," Harrison's sixth novel, brings us into some of the same unsettling emotional terrain as her earlier novels, such as ''Exposure," and her memoirs, such as ''The Kiss." This time, though, she shows us a slightly different path back toward safety.

Will Moreland and his twin brother, Mitch, have been estranged for years. And since in literature, as in life, twins are rarely estranged, and twinship is rarely ''a torment" as it was for Will, this signals immediately that something is profoundly awry.

Mitch was born with his face deformed by a port wine-colored birthmark covering half his face. This fault line between two otherwise identical brothers offers up many layered possibilities for tension that Harrison fully explores: in Will's boyhood empathy for and vigilance over his more withdrawn, less popular brother, in the tumerous mass of resentment and compensation that grows in Mitch as he navigates life as the imperfect part of a pair, and ultimately, in the devious way he attempts to balance the scales.

Harrison seems to know that, however estranged, two siblings can move into adulthood repeating echoes and parallels of each other. As an adult, Mitch is a famous professional swimmer. Will has lost a son to drowning. In the aftermath of the loss, Will attends his college reunion -- Mitch stays away -- and encounters a former girlfriend who opens up old wounds and marks him with some fresh new ones that keep unfolding into darker and darker possibilities. Ultimately, it is Will who becomes the marked man.

Since Will is a psychoanalyst, ''Envy's" narrative is shaped by his dialogues, with himself and his own analyst, as he struggles to find sense and meaning in his past and in his present crises. This kind of interior monologue can be tedious, but Harrison lends her own considerable gifts for insight to Will, and the result is a brilliant illustration of the dynamic between analytic intelligence and the more unconscious leaps of conjecture and faith that add up to wisdom.

Some of these passages are startling in their beauty: ''He's also a tortured agnostic, suffering spasms of private, even desolate, self-examination. Alert to coincidence and unanticipated symmetry, to aspects aligning in patterns, almost readable, he sifts, sorts, and turns the pieces, lays them down and picks them up in what amounts to an endless game of mental solitaire, occasionally drawing close to something that comes out neatly and looks like a grand and universal plan, a sequence of details in which, as the saying goes, God resides."

Of course, because we're in Harrison territory, there are additional complications. As Will's wife, Carole, tries to make sense of her loss by withdrawing from Will physically, Will increasingly believes he's become a sex addict. He's aroused by women, by all women, including his patients. And when one provocative young woman appears in his office, it precipitates a crisis that collides with the others in his life to the point he is poised to lose everything.

Harrison has no interest in creating anything but the highest emotional stakes for her main characters, perhaps because they are so often damaged souls. The root of their damage is usually sexual transgression, and Harrison is fearless in showing how such damage forces its victims to reenact versions of these transgressions. How close to self-destruction can one get before finding another way out? Harrison's intelligence, and her ability to face this question, has created a body of work that is sometimes disturbing but always compelling.

In ''Envy," though, she adds something new to the mix. Her characters and their relationships have a sense of heart and warmth here that gives her writing, always beautiful, a new level of depth. Will's relationship with Carole is, at center, solid and nurturing. And Will's exchanges with his father, who has, to Will's surprise, created a post-retirement name for himself as a photographer, are richly drawn, often funny, and sometimes dazzling. Will, in studying a photograph his father has taken, ''has been overwhelmed not by anger but by love for him, and the feeling has arrived physically. Deep under his rib, he has felt something he imagines like the crease made by folding a sheet of paper: a sensation, almost pain, that's shown him a place he might tear more easily."

The crises in ''Envy" often approach soap opera territory, and in the end, are resolved a shade too tidily and smoothly, but Harrison seems to be reaching for something more domestic here, and hopeful -- something, perhaps, approaching peace. Thankfully for the reader, that adds up to a satisfying end to an engaging, beautifully written story.

Sandra Shea is the author of the novel ''The Realm of Secondhand Souls."

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