Moving from Paris to Tuscany then onto New York, this lovely novel is about frustrated desire and the inexplicable nuances of love, where "one's beauty is always such a fragile state" and passion lurks in some of the most unlikely of places. Thirty-something American Russell Todaro tries to sort through the emotional chaos of his writing life while living in Paris and working as a translator of Italian texts.
For quite some time now, Russell has been coupled with his partner, the renowned older poet Edward Cannon. Despite their age difference, the two have an easygoing and companionable relationship that is based more on mutual love and respect than any great passionate intent. Russell's affection for Ed has even been immortalized in an elegant and rather sad Venetian poem, called "Venice Sinking by Degrees."
Before he met Ed, Russell had been having a hot and sexy affair with Michel, a young, brash, and rather fickle Parisian who flattered him with attentions and took him away for afternoons on his slick BMW bike. There was just one catch: the hunky Michel was married and considered himself primarily heterosexual, and
he was not about to get a divorce from his beautiful wife to commit himself to another man.
The plot is kick-started by a chance meeting when Ed – while sitting with Russell at a café just outside of their hotel - recognizes the celebrated Italian writer Marina Vezzoli, whom he'd had once met at a literary festival in Chile. Marina is now quite famous for a novel called
The Conversion, an account of the Nazi occupation of the villa and the story of a Jewish family who converts to Catholicism.
Ed loved the book and although Marina doesn't quite remember him, Ed is fuelled by a sense of excitement at finally reconnecting with her again.
His enthusiasm, however, is short lived. Later that night, when Russell and Ed are in bed asleep, two men wearing black ski masks enter their hotel room demanding their money and passports. The shock of the intrusion proves to be too much for Ed to bear; when Russell wakes the next morning, Ed, looking unnaturally pale, is dead from a heart attack.
Contacting Russell to extend her condolences, Marina asks him to come and stay with her at her family's home, the beautiful Villa Guidi situated on the picaresque coast of Tuscany. Thrust into a devastating situation and carrying the burden of depression, Russell jumps at the chance.
Here amongst the solace of the Vezzoli family home, he finally tries to deal with the emotional fallout over Ed's
A more pressing problem is what to do with the manuscript of memoir that Ed had been working on before his untimely death. For the moment the manuscript is safe in Russell's computer bag, sandwiched among his belongings, but the petty and volatile Annie Calhoun, Ed's literary executrix, keeps phoning from New York, desperate to get her hands on the mysterious document. Even after Annie has unsuccessfully searched among all the papers Ed had with him in the Parisian hotel, she still badgers Russell about the whereabouts of the journal.
Interlacing Ed's memoir with Russell's own interpretation of the events that took place, Olshan's protagonist battles his passions for Michel while trying to stay committed to the ghost of Ed
and figuring out what to do with the manuscript. Ed certainly had no intention of allowing the memoir to leave his hands until he was completely finished with it.
As the secrets of Ed's memoir are gradually unlocked, Russell is forced to recognize some harsh truths about his lover in the form of Ed's unrequited love, his frustrated desires, and his urge to chase pure experience, even if it meant contracting the HIV virus. Russell's ultimate "conversion" is that he discovers Ed was meddling in his affair with Michel and that he probably stayed with Ed for the wrong reasons – not because he was in love with him, but because he so profoundly admired his mind and his writing.
It isn't until Russell begins to fall for Lorenzo, a sexually assured and very married "carabiniere" who is called by Marina to investigate a sudden break-in in the form of an attempted robbery in the Villa Guidi's outbuildings, that Russell must finally come to terms with his peculiar propensity for falling in and out of love with married men. All the while, Ed's manuscript twists and chars in Russell's mind, his words melting into black, reliving the sense of compulsion and regret.
Loaded with symbolism and metaphor, Olshan's novel is a beautifully constructed allegory of an artist's life where the prerogatives of the past are constantly intruding upon the present. Passionate, sexy, and powerful, The Conversion eventually symbolizes one young man's compulsion to break free of an unhealthy pattern and an unfinished life that ultimately is defined by the power of the written word.