A Writer in Europe: Olshan's 'The Conversion'

Book reviewer Alan Cheuse examines The Conversion, the eighth novel by Joseph Olshan. Set in present-day Italy, Olshan bring us the story of a young expatriate writer in France and Italy and his apprenticeship in art and life.

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NOAH ADAMS, host:

From NPR News, it's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Noah Adams.

Now a review of a novel by Vermont writer Joseph Olshan. "The Conversion" tells a story of a young expatriate writer living in Europe and what he learns about art and life from an older literary mentor.

Here's our reviewer, Alan Cheuse.

ALAN CHEUSE: Russell Todaro, the young writer in question, has been living in Paris with a famous older man named Ed. Ed is a 59-year-old dirty blonde-haired paunchy expatriate poet suffering in his forlorn desire for Russell, or as Russell calls it, their imbalanced affection; imbalanced because Russell longs for a dashing Parisian with a wife, a family and a motorcycle. Before the first chapter ends, there's an apparent mistaken attempt on the poet's life, and he dies, but from a heart attack.

That's when the novel begins to spark and glisten. Russell, who's been eking out a living as a translator, packs his few belongings, takes along the manuscript of an unpublished memoir by the late poet, and travels to Italy. He moves into the villa of an Italian novelist. She's an acquaintance of the late poet's and the author of a novel called "Conversion," a book Russell comes to admire.

For a short while, Russell seems anything but converted. Having broken off his affair with his Frenchman, and grieving heavily for the dead poet, he does nothing much when he first arrives at the Italian villa but sleep. But Olshan's straightforward prose keeps the reader awake. Quite soon yet another married man enters Russell's life, and a legal battle begins over that memoir left by the late poet, and we're really caught up in this tangle of love, honor, memory, and future hopes.

After reading his hostess's novel, Russell sees the essence of her good writing as the ability, as he puts it, to alchemize anecdote into drama. That's certainly what Joseph Olshan does, putting us readers in a world that's quite fascinating to inhabit, and perhaps a place we'll recall with balanced affection.

ADAMS: The novel is "The Conversion" by Joseph Olshan. Alan Cheuse teaches writing at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia.

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