The Conversion, By Joseph Olshan

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The Independent Culture

From Henry James via Mavis Gallant to Edmund White, stories about innocent Americans being undone by encounters with wicked Old Europe are a well-used literary trope. US writer Joseph Olshan seems well aware that his latest novel, The Conversion, sits on the tassel on the end of this tradition; he name-checks James early on. His plotting, however, is most unJamesian in its candour.

Russell, a writer, is in bed in a Paris hotel with his sort-of boy-friend, a famous, much older, poet, when armed intruders burst in. The poet sees them off but dies, presumably from shock. His traumatised companion is whisked off to Tuscany by an enigmatic older woman guest who just happens to be a prizewinning novelist with a palazzo outside Florence.

As Russell recuperates in style, aided by a fling with a godlike carabiniere, he can't resist reading the manuscript of his dead lover's memoirs. He and we learn some brutal truths about Russell's tortured affair with a wealthy married Frenchman and the part the jealous poet played in ensuring its demise. Should Russell hand over the manuscript to the poet's executrix, or burn it to save his own reputation? Should he return to the married man, whose American wife is suddenly prepared to connive at their ménage? Can he trust the worldly-wise advice of his hostess or does she have sinister motives of her own?

It's a far cry from The Aspern Papers, and far swifter moving, but the themes behind Olshan's plot – reputation, innocence, the fate of a manuscript and the effects of money – are Jamesian, as is the lingering evocation of the Tuscan palazzo. Where the work stumbles is in small errors of social register or fact. The windows of Paris's Sainte-Chapelle portray parables and Bible stories, not allegories. The catty French acronym BCBG would be translated better as the settled privilege of WASP than the still upwardly mobile Yuppie.

The Conversion promises a mystery, a thriller even, with its old house full of secrets, political terrorism and personal paranoia. This, and the way the touristic European setting tempts Olshan to lecture the reader in a faintly superior Baedeker style, is regrettable – for they come between him and his natural subject, which is damage and recovery. He wrote about these to great effect in Night Swimmer, which portrayed the wary edging-towards-intimacy of two men profoundly wounded by past loves. He touched on them again inVanitas, in which a bisexual ghost-writer is startled by a homoerotic drawing of a young man cradling a skull into confronting his conflicting needs.

In all three novels, Olshan frustratingly wants to set up some kind of mystery plot, often with a not terribly thrilling dénouement. His real strengths lie in his skill at mapping failed or failing relationships and his almost psychotherapeutic interest in the uncoiling of the tangle of guilt, inhibition and fear of emotional surrender that holds his protagonists back from happiness.

Patrick Gale's 'Notes from an Exhibition' is published by HarperPerennial