Joseph Olshan The Conversion

ISBN 13: 9780312373917

The Conversion

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9780312373917: The Conversion
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Russell Todaro, a young American translator, moves to Paris to take stock of his life and goals only to further lose himself in the surprising twists fate has in store for him. One night, two men waving guns and knives break and enter their Paris hotel room, terrorizing Russell and his much older companion, a famous American poet named Edward Cannon. The intruders, not finding what they seemingly expected, leave without further incident but the baffling, traumatic events overwhelm Cannon who dies in his sleep later that night. Now Russell is left to ponder the meaning of the attack, what to do with the poet’s unfinished, problematic memoir and, perhaps most importantly, how to reconstruct and move forward with his own life.

Hearing of the disturbing circumstances of  Cannon’s death, an Italian writer, Marina Vezzoli, invites Russell to recuperate at her villa in Tuscany. But what at first seems like a generous invitation slowly reveals itself to be a calculated offer. As Russell’s stay in Italy lengthens, he begins to realize that the people in his life are using or manipulating him, most of all the poet’s New York publishers who, against the dying man’s wishes, are trying to acquire his unfinished manuscript. Looming over everything is the long and fascinating legacy of Villa Guidi, where during Word War II a Jewish family hid in the subterranean floors, later undergoing a conversion to Catholicism. In an echo of this dramatic history, Russell is forced to undergo a conversion of his own in order to find redemption and meaning in his life.]

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About the Author:

Joseph Olshan is the award-winning author of eight novels.  His first novel was Clara’s Heart, which went on to be made into a film starring Whoppi Goldberg.  His other novels include Nightswimmer and In Clara’s Hands. In addition he has written extensively for newspapers and magazines and for several years was a professor of Creative Writing at New York University. He spends most of the year in Vermont.

From The Washington Post:

Here's Henry James again, although this time not as the main character of a novel, as in Colm Tóibín's The Master or David Lodge's Author, Author. In Joseph Olshan's intelligent new novel, his eighth, it's the spirit of Henry James -- of "The Aspern Papers," for instance, and "The Lesson of the Master" -- that hovers over the historic Tuscan villa in which much of the story takes place. Olshan's updated Jamesian narrator, Russell Todaro, is a young American in Europe, a stalled writer in an old world that privileges social custom over romantic passion. But Russell is also, to Olshan's credit, a figure whom James could never have created, even if he'd been able to imagine him: He's gay and Jewish.

It's hard to summarize The Conversion, given its rather dense surfeit of subplots, which include a few too many coincidences as well as a murky tale of political intrigue that never comes to fruition. But at heart it's Russell's story, and it starts when Russell's most recent lover, an older, distinguished American poet named Ed Cannon, suffers a fatal heart attack in Paris, leaving behind an unfinished memoir. All the rest is aftermath.

Broke, and with nowhere else to go, Russell accepts an invitation from a renowned Italian novelist, Marina Vezzoli, to stay for as long as he desires in the Tuscan villa where she lives with her reclusive husband, a political writer who fears assassination by Muslim terrorists. Although Russell has no claim to it, he pirates Ed's memoir to Italy to keep it from a grasping literary executrix who wants to have it published.

There's much to admire in The Conversion, not least the clean and nuanced elegance of Olshan's prose. In dramatizing Russell's painful dilemma over whether or not Ed's unfinished memoir should be destroyed -- particularly after Russell discovers that Ed has written of him harshly in it and has sometimes even lied -- Olshan explores with depth, as did Henry James, the ways in which all human motives are far from transparent.

But for all I admired in the novel, I often found myself tiring of what sometimes seemed a series of exhausted Jamesian descriptions of Italy and, above all, Marina Vezzoli's villa, with its old stone balustrades, tromp l'oeil arches and cavernous, frescoed ballroom.

Olshan's Russell is a terrific creation, a man who wants to be converted by love but is unable to recognize, at least at first, his own disabling complexities. But I'm not sure I've ever read the word "loggia" so many times in one novel.


Copyright 2008, The Washington Post. All Rights Reserved.

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Other Popular Editions of the Same Title

9780312565565: The Conversion: A Novel

Featured Edition

ISBN 10:  0312565569 ISBN 13:  9780312565565
Publisher: St. Martin's Griffin, 2009
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9781905147984: 'CONVERSION, THE'

Arcadia, 2008
Softcover

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