Conquering Venus by Collin Kelley (Vanilla Heart Publishing)

Set primarily in Paris during a turbulent summer in the mid-1990s, Collin Kelley’s ambitious and entertaining debut novel focuses on the secrets and desires of a quartet of troubled characters. Martin Paige is a twenty-two year-old would-be writer still grieving over the suicide of Peter, his high school boyfriend, while co-chaperoning a group of high school graduates to Europe with Diane Jacobs, a thirty-eight year old divorcee and school teacher Martin met in a Memphis support group. David McLaren, one of the student’s on the trip, is an eighteen year-old jock and the object of Martin’s affections but not yet ready to commit to any one of them or accept his own desires. Into this mix appears Irène Laureux, a sixtysomething agoraphobic Parisian editor, whose balcony overlooks Martin’s hotel room and its accompanying dramas.

Kelley, a well-regarded Southern poet and journalist, employs all of the tourist spots of Paris to flesh out the scenes between his American expatriates — there are drunken confessions and revelatory trips to the Eiffel Tour, Sacre Coeur, the Louvre, and Notre Dame, among other locales, though both Diane and Martin quickly prove they are ill-equipped to be chaperones. Lucky for both of them that the author keeps most of the students invisible and out of the plotline because the author does little to make the adults sympathetic or experienced guides for their young charges. Martin is overly somber and Diane’s wit is often more coarse and sarcastic than comic or illuminating, which may possibly be Kelley’s intent, since he does have some redeeming qualities in store for her at the novel’s conclusion. Kelley is more successful at delineating Irène and her paranoias and struggles as she befriends Martin and gingerly tries to step outside her apartment for the first time in decades. “We’re both trapped in our own way,” she tells Martin one night. “Perhaps it is fate that we met. Maybe we were brought together to help free each other. Somehow.”

Irène is haunted by the unsolved mystery of her husband’s death almost thirty years before. Martin is seeking absolution from his memories of Peter. Diane is trying to free herself of the misery of her marriage. And David is on the verge of becoming a teenage alcoholic, spying on the adults from the hotel’s rooftop. Kelley, however, doesn’t rely on his characters fates to shape his narrative. The writing is crisp and the novel’s pace is a swift and compressed one, with finely detailed dreams, gypsy readings, hospital apparitions, undiscovered journals, and an abundance of metaphors (tattoos, classical statues, and poems). The plot reaches its melodramatic height when his characters survive a terrorist attack in the Paris subway and their paths begin to change. The back story — and mystery of Irène’s husband’s death in the late sixties during a riotous time in Paris’s history — is particularly fascinating and well-researched, though the shift in focus as Irène and Martin turn detective to piece together the unsolved clues makes the remainder of the plot anticlimactic when it returns to David and Diane and the novel’s resolutions.

Kelley has indicated that there might be more in store for his characters — this novel is the first of a projected trilogy — and readers of this first novel will undoubtedly want to read more by the author.

Reviewed by Jameson Currier

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