Katie Larkin is desperate. Recently widowed, she has been forced to return to the home of her mother’s new lover. She is addicted to the sleeping powders prescribed by the doctor to keep her from walking in her sleep. She has received a small settlement from her dead husband’s family and is being pressured to get a job, find her own place to live,
and leave her mother in peace. Katie has always thought of herself as an artist, and one night, without telling anyone, she buys herself passage on a ship bound for Venice.
Once arrived, Katie nearly panics at what she has done. After finding a tiny apartment to live in, she searches out the gallery of an American art dealer, Amy Seagroves, and introduces herself for the first time as an artist. Amy thinks her something of a curiosity, and decides to help Katie make her way in Venice. Amy’s first suggestion is to hire a dancing girl to pose for her so that she can paint portraits. Katie makes her way to the theater and meets Rusala for the first time.
Katie is immediately drawn to Rusala – her high spirits and daring personality
stand in sharp contrast to Katie’s timidity. After only a few modeling sessions,
the two are friends; Rusala begins to draw Katie into her circle, introducing her to the bohemian cast of characters who populate Rusala’s life. Soon, friendship deepens into a strong physical and emotional attachment, and Katie finds her life impossible to imagine without Rusala in it.
Rusala becomes Katie’s muse as she furiously paints to prepare for the showing Amy Seagroves plans at her gallery. Katie’s meager funds are running out, and she is counting on selling paintings to fund her new dream – a move to the country with Rusala. When she finds out that Amy has other plans for the paintings, Katie becomes frantic with worry and hatches a plan to ensure her future. As her actions become more reckless, secrets begin to emerge – secrets Rusala has been hiding that will change the course of everyone’s lives.
Butler has written a rich, dense first novel that envelops the reader in early 20th-century Venice. In the same way that a painting has many details waiting to reveal themselves to the viewer, Butler’s narrative is full of layers that she slowly reveals to the careful reader. Because she is writing about artists, her beautifully descriptive style of writing seems appropriate, and she paints exquisite pictures for her reader of the colors and locations in her novel. At a somewhat short 166 pages, Butler offers a story that feels complete and leaves the reader satisfied.
This novel, however, will not be for every reader. Butler’s characters are interesting but not especially sympathetic, and because the novel is so short, some readers may
be unable to fully connect with the two main characters. There is a strong erotic component to the novel, and readers uncomfortable with graphic depictions of lesbianism would be happier staying away from this one. Additionally, because much of the novel deals with Katie’s inner turmoils, the pacing of the novel can sometimes get bogged down in descriptions of thoughts and feelings.
While not for everyone, Relief will certainly appeal to many readers. Butler’s beautiful writing style makes the novel a pleasure to read, and many paragraphs are worth re-reading simply for their loveliness. Readers looking for an intense, multi-faceted story with unconventional characters and an unusual ending are encouraged to give this novel a try.