The Conversion
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The Conversion

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by Joseph Olshan

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Russell Todaro, a young American translator, moves to Paris to take stock of his life and goals only to further lose himself in the surprising twists fate has in store for him. One night, two men waving guns and knives break and enter their Paris hotel room, terrorizing Russell and his much older companion, a famous American poet named Edward Cannon. The intruders,

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Russell Todaro, a young American translator, moves to Paris to take stock of his life and goals only to further lose himself in the surprising twists fate has in store for him. One night, two men waving guns and knives break and enter their Paris hotel room, terrorizing Russell and his much older companion, a famous American poet named Edward Cannon. The intruders, not finding what they seemingly expected, leave without further incident but the baffling, traumatic events overwhelm Cannon who dies in his sleep later that night. Now Russell is left to ponder the meaning of the attack, what to do with the poet's unfinished, problematic memoir and, perhaps most importantly, how to reconstruct and move forward with his own life.

Hearing of the disturbing circumstances of Cannon's death, an Italian writer, Marina Vezzoli, invites Russell to recuperate at her villa in Tuscany. But what at first seems like a generous invitation slowly reveals itself to be a calculated offer. As Russell's stay in Italy lengthens, he begins to realize that the people in his life are using or manipulating him, most of all the poet's New York publishers who, against the dying man's wishes, are trying to acquire his unfinished manuscript. Looming over everything is the long and fascinating legacy of Villa Guidi, where during Word War II a Jewish family hid in the subterranean floors, later undergoing a conversion to Catholicism. In an echo of this dramatic history, Russell is forced to undergo a conversion of his own in order to find redemption and meaning in his life.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

“Beautiful, bittersweet…This fervent story of love and loss, of the perils and pleasures of intimacy, is depicted with a sure, light touch and with universal resonance and appeal.” —New York Times Book Review on Nightswimmer

“Olshan writes prose that sings.” —Los Angeles Times Book Review on A Warmer Season

“A beautifully written story of love, betrayal and loss.” —People Magazine on Nightswimmer

“…a finely written and compassionate book. Its quality is immediately apparent….a novel characterized by poetic instinct rather than documentary panache.” —The Sunday Times (London) on The Waterline

“Authentically moving.” —Newsweek on A Warmer Season

“Extraordinarily mature….Here is a writer in total command of his narrative.” —Ian McEwan on Clara's Heart

“Olshan's novels are novels of great obsessions, of transcendent moments of perfect love set against a backdrop of hovering betrayal and death.” —The Guardian (London) on Vanitas

Richard McCann
There's much to admire in The Conversion, not least the clean and nuanced elegance of Olshan's prose. In dramatizing Russell's painful dilemma over whether or not Ed's unfinished memoir should be destroyed —particularly after Russell discovers that Ed has written of him harshly in it and has sometimes even lied—Olshan explores with depth, as did Henry James, the ways in which all human motives are far from transparent…Olshan's Russell is a terrific creation, a man who wants to be converted by love but is unable to recognize, at least at first, his own disabling complexities.
—The Washington Post
Publishers Weekly

Olshan's crisp, satisfying new novel follows American translator and author Russell Todaro, a Jewish gay man who becomes embroiled in the death and ensuing scandal of a former lover. While in France with Ed, a well-known Parisian poet, they are attacked in their hotel room by two armed men. The men mysteriously flee when Ed confronts them; then Ed dies of a heart attack the following morning. Marina, an aging literary acquaintance of Ed's, provides a haven for Russell at Villa Guidi, her picturesque and history-laden Tuscan villa. Marina frets that the men who assaulted Russell in Paris may have been looking for her reclusive husband, Stefano, a controversial, outspoken media writer. Meanwhile, Annie, the executrix of Ed's literary estate, demands to know the whereabouts of the autobiographical manuscript he'd spent the last 10 years penning. Russell denies he has it, though escalating momentum and melodrama converge in the novel's denouement when Ed's writings re-emerge and the lines of truth become blurred. Set against a plush and evocatively described European backdrop, Olshan has produced a compelling story of forbidden desire, deception, religion and love's intoxicating allure. (Apr.)

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Library Journal

Author and translator Russell Todaro's life as an American expat in Paris is shaken by the sudden death of his lover, Ed, a successful poet. Ed's unpublished memoir manuscript remains with Russell as he leaves Paris, much to the chagrin of Ed's publishers. In a historic villa in Tuscany, Russell tries to keep a low profile while a guest of Italian author Marina Vezzoli and her reclusive husband. Liaisons with a local police officer and the reappearance of Michel, a married lover from Paris, complicate the tale. Russell's writing career, barely mobile in any case, has completely stalled. Can he work through the petty intrigue and manipulation that surround him and create a career of his own? Compelling settings and detail help to balance the considerable weight of the self-absorbed characters. With his eighth novel, Olshan (Clara's Heart) should find an appreciative audience among Italianites and other fans of European-set fiction. Recommended for larger fiction collections, particularly for gay literature collections.
—Jenn B. Stidham

Kirkus Reviews
Time and sexual boundaries are transcended in Olshan's eighth novel (In Clara's Hands, 2001, etc.). Thirty-one-year-old writer Russell Todaro has moved from New York to Paris to work as a freelance translator and to find inspiration for his own writing. When Edward Cannon, his older lover and an accomplished poet, dies of a heart attack after an armed robbery attempt in their hotel room, Russell finds Ed's unfinished memoir. He must decide whether to honor his friend's wishes and prevent publication or hand it over to Ed's grasping executrix back in New York. In the year they were together Russell never fully returned Ed's love, rather treating him as an esteemed friend and mentor. Before his death, Ed had introduced Russell to Marina, whose prize-winning novel set during World War II describes Jews hidden in a Tuscan convent who later convert to Catholicism. Awaiting the outcome of Ed's inquest and badgered by his executrix into admitting he has the memoir, Russell visits Marina's villa in Tuscany. A break-in at her estate and the death of her husband hint at a political drama that is loosely sketched and never clarified. Meanwhile, Russell's decision to destroy Ed's memoir does not offer the emotional release Russell seeks. Only when he lets go of the past-and receives an unexpected gift-can he fulfill his promise as a writer. The relationships between Olshan's male characters are sultry and multifaceted, mapped across a richly delineated landscape of intimacy and yearning. European sensibility and sensuality add new dimensions to Olshan's writing. Agent: Mitchell Waters/Curtis Brown

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Product Details

St. Martin's Press
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5.40(w) x 8.10(h) x 0.90(d)

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Meet the Author

Joseph Olshan is the award-winning author of eight novels. His first novel was Clara's Heart, which went on to be made into a film starring Whoppi Goldberg. His other novels include Nightswimmer and In Clara's Hands. In addition he has written extensively for newspapers and magazines and for several years was a professor of Creative Writing at New York University. He spends most of the year in Vermont.

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The Conversion 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This book uses conversion as process and as event in many ways throughout. The author develops his characters beautifully, and creates a plot at once intriguing and symbolic. One of the best books I've read this year.