Past into the present

Olshan plays with the boundaries of religious identity and sexual identity.

the conversion book 224.88 (photo credit: )
the conversion book 224.88
(photo credit: )
The Conversion By Joseph Olshan St. Martin's 288 pages; $24.95 Acclaimed author Joseph Olshan asserts his literary prowess once again with his latest novel, The Conversion. Hypnotic prose, several layers of intrigue, and a heady Old World setting harmonize to create a melodious, and immensely enjoyable, story. But The Conversion is more than a pleasurable read - Olshan addresses compelling themes such as religious identity, homosexuality and Europe's current struggle to deal with an influx of immigrants from Muslim countries, deftly handling these potentially incendiary topics with thought and sensitivity. This fast-paced read opens with a short and attention-grabbing first chapter. Russell Todaro, a struggling young writer, and his companion, Edward Cannon, an accomplished older poet, are surprised by intruders in their Paris hotel room. Edward subsequently dies and Russell is left to puzzle over both the mysterious intruders that led to his death and the unfinished autobiography he left behind. Then another mystery, of sorts, surfaces - an Italian woman, a writer, who had previously snubbed Edward, invites Russell to recover from the traumatic events at her villa in Tuscany. He accepts Marina's invitation but the question becomes: What are her motives? With every turn, Russell finds himself further ensnared in the desires of those around him. These events open Russell up to self-examination. As he reviews his life, past and present, a series of thought-provoking questions emerges and an unflinchingly honest story is the answer. Russell examines his propensity to get involved in love affairs with married men, admits that he considered converting to Christianity for the sake of a boyfriend who happened to be an Episcopalian priest, and acknowledges that, on some level, he'd hoped to contract HIV. Broader issues are at stake, as well. Marina's husband, Stefano, has written on the topics of Muslim fundamentalism and the jihadists who emerge from these movements. By publishing these opinions, Stefano has become a target of Islamic extremists. Further, the difficult situation facing North African immigrants to Italy is dramatized when the villa is burglarized by an Albanian who lives with his family in the "terrible conditions" of a nearby immigrant camp. The villa also serves as impetus for Russell to examine his Jewish identity. During World War II, the villa served as a hiding place for a Jewish family that later converted to Catholicism - a story Marina has told in her novel. Russell and Marina discuss the circumstances surrounding their conversion and he reveals to her that he considered leaving Judaism for a lover. The conversation that ensues naturally leads the reader toward consideration of religious identity - including the ties that bind people to particular religions and what propels people to leave their religion. Despite such weighty themes, the writing remains delicate and fluid. Olshan is gently pulling strings, playing with the boundaries of religious identity, sexual identity, illuminating the intricacies of relationships that affect the choices we make, the lives we choose to live. History and society lean on the characters, as well, exerting their pressures. The circumstances of the unique moment in which characters exist bear down on them, shaping them and their choices. In Europe, as in The Conversion, history resonates throughout the present. Not only has Olshan captured this perfectly, he portrays the feel of Europe itself. Exquisite descriptions breathe life into the setting, which functions as a vital component - a character in and of itself - of this novel. In Paris, Russell observes "trickles of Middle Eastern ladies... fluttering along the boulevard in their burkas like tremulous moths." The city of Paris itself is lovingly portrayed: "The precise contours of its formal gardens à la française; the rapturous, musky scent of its towering linden trees, winding streets bulging with shops whose eclectic displays inspired fabrics with brilliant color and texture; fresh flowers that seemed to have been cut only moments before in some vast, sun-dappled field." Under Olshan's artistry, the prose sings and the ordinary is rendered divine. Amid this setting, under the push of circumstances and characters, Russell ultimately undergoes a conversion. He comes to understand himself in a new light and he finally takes control of his life. But the story is not limited to Russell's personal journey; the notes of history and contemporary events sound throughout this exquisitely orchestrated novel. The many instruments of the varied storylines result in a concert. The Conversion is a profound story of self-discovery and self-definition.