Peter Straub is a wonderful writer, best known for tales of horror and suspense such as Ghost Story or The Talisman (with Stephen King). Readers expecting "chills and thrills" should be advised beforehand that Under Venus is not such a book.
First published in 1985 and reprinted now by Stealth Press, Under Venus is more a quiet, contemplative book than a chilling page turner. There are beautifully rendered scenes such as the one in which the main character, a musical composer named Elliot Denmark, takes a walk in "Nun's Woods" and becomes "lost" or disoriented for a few moments. Reading the scene I felt as though I was in the woods with Elliot. Straub's writing is, as I said, wonderful and here and there a line comes along such as "...answering a question that way...as if slamming a door." which makes a reader smile. What a nice line. And how many times do we get replies from people exactly like that? Like slamming a door.
The subject matter of the book is problematic. I found myself simply not caring about Elliot nor any of the people surrounding him. His wife, his mistress Anita, and her live-in baby sitter and maid (whom Elliot sleeps with) all are walking through their lives without any passion. They all seem jaded or simply tired of their existence, and, as a consequence, do not inspire us to care about them. If they don't seem to care, why should we? Even when Elliot seduces the baby sitter, he's told that the affair (if that's what it can be called) is over even as Elliot is putting his pants on. No one in this book cares much about anyone or anything. The people seem as cold as the winter weather outside their homes. When Elliot goes to Anita's house, he tells her, "You know, I'm not quite sure what I'm doing here with you." Neither was I reading the book.
Elliot is a young composer, and about to put on a performance of his written work. Instead of being enthusiastic about this, his life's ambition, Straub says of him: "First, the rehearsals showed that the concert would at least not be an utter failure: with one more long run-through on the day of the performance, they could at least make it plausible." That sense of non-passion runs through the book. When Elliot's wife learns of his affair for example, she is rather blasť about it. She's upset but not enough to make a scene and doesn't even object when he tells her (more than once) that he has to go over again to her (his lover's) house.
The book is set in 1969, one of the "protest years" in which Americans were split over the war in Vietnam, a time of Bob Dylan and The Beatles revolution in popular music. A time of change in popular attitudes as well. A time of the birth of the "Woman's Liberation Movement" for example and the Civil Rights Movement. Yet none of that is mentioned in this book. Why pick this particular year in our history and then put in no details at all about the events of that time? Instead, the primary event being discussed in this book is the town's plan to build a mall (or apartment complex) in "Nun's Woods". Not much to get excited about there either.
Oddly the character I found myself most interested in was the babysitter, Andy, a young woman with a beautiful body and a face scarred by an auto accident. She wears her red facial scars defiantly, almost proudly. I think a book written around a character like that instead of the jaded, cocktail party types Straub offers us might have been much more interesting.
Fans of Peter Straub may want to give this book a chance to see one of his earlier works and to enjoy some of his wonderful sentences and descriptive scenes. But readers looking for a "page-turner" should look elsewhere.