Arcadia £11.99 (199pp) £10.89 (free p&p) from 0870 079 8897

The Conversion, By Joseph Olshan

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

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Novelist Martin Amis at The Times Cheltenham Literature Festival

books
Arts and Entertainment
Alfred Molina, left, and John Lithgow in a scene from 'Love Is Strange'

After giving gay film R-rating despite no sex or violence

film
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Williams will be given a 'meaningful remembrance' at the Emmy Awards

film
Arts and Entertainment

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Arctic Monkeys headline this year's Reading and Leeds festivals, but there's a whole host of other bands to check out too
music
Arts and Entertainment
Blue singer Simon Webbe will be confirmed for Strictly Come Dancing

tv
Arts and Entertainment
'The Great British Bake Off' showcases food at its most sumptuous
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Cliff Richard performs at the Ziggo Dome in Amsterdam on 17 May 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Educating the East End returns to Channel 4 this autumn

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch will voice Shere Khan in Andy Serkis' movie take on The Jungle Book

film
Arts and Entertainment
DJ Calvin Harris performs at the iHeartRadio Music Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
The eyes have it: Kate Bush

music
Arts and Entertainment
From left to right: Mark Crown, DJ Locksmith and Amir Amor of Rudimental performing on stage during day one of the Wireless Festival at Perry Park, Birmingham

music
Arts and Entertainment

books
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Vine has won the funniest joke award at the Edinburgh Festival 2014

Edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Capaldi and Chris Addison star in political comedy The Thick of IT

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Judy Murray said she

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Vine has won the funniest joke award at the Edinburgh Festival 2014

edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Paxman has admitted he is a 'one-nation Tory' and complained that Newsnight is made by idealistic '13-year-olds' who foolishly think they can 'change the world'.

Edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Seoul singer G-Dragon could lead the invasion as South Korea has its sights set on Western markets
music
Arts and Entertainment
tv
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    All this talk of an ‘apocalyptic’ threat is simply childish

    Robert Fisk: All this talk of an ‘apocalyptic’ threat is simply childish

    Chuck Hagel and Martin Dempsey were pure Hollywood. They only needed Tom Cruise
    Mafia Dons: is the Camorra in control of the Granite City?

    Mafia Dons: is the Camorra in control of the Granite City?

    So claims an EU report which points to the Italian Mob’s alleged grip on everything from public works to property
    Emmys look set to overhaul the Oscars as Hollywood’s prize draw

    Emmys look set to overhaul the Oscars as Hollywood’s prize draw

    Once the poor relation, the awards show now has the top stars and boasts the best drama
    What happens to African migrants once they land in Italy during the summer?

    What happens to migrants once they land in Italy?

    August in southern Italy is known darkly as 'boating season' - the peak period for migrants arriving in Sicily at the end of an often epic journey through Africa. Memphis Barker follows their trail through southern Europe
    French connection: After 1,300 years, there’s a bridge to Mont Saint-Michel

    French connection: After 1,300 years, there’s a bridge to Mont Saint-Michel

    The ugly causeway is being dismantled, an elegant connection erected in its place. So everyone’s happy, right?
    Frank Mugisha: Uganda's most outspoken gay rights activist on changing people's attitudes, coming out, and the threat of being attacked

    Frank Mugisha: 'Coming out was a gradual process '

    Uganda's most outspoken gay rights activist on changing people's attitudes, coming out, and the threat of being attacked
    Radio 1 to hire 'YouTube-famous' vloggers to broadcast online

    Radio 1’s new top ten

    The ‘vloggers’ signed up to find twentysomething audience
    David Abraham: Big ideas for the small screen

    David Abraham: Big ideas for the small screen

    A blistering attack on US influence on British television has lifted the savvy head of Channel 4 out of the shadows
    Florence Knight's perfect picnic: Make the most of summer's last Bank Holiday weekend

    Florence Knight's perfect picnic

    Polpetto's head chef shares her favourite recipes from Iced Earl Grey tea to baked peaches, mascarpone & brown sugar meringues...
    Horst P Horst: The fashion photography genius who inspired Madonna comes to the V&A

    Horst P Horst comes to the V&A

    The London's museum has delved into its archives to stage a far-reaching retrospective celebrating the photographer's six decades of creativity
    Mark Hix recipes: Try our chef's summery soups for a real seasonal refresher

    Mark Hix's summery soups

    Soup isn’t just about comforting broths and steaming hot bowls...
    Tim Sherwood column: 'It started as a three-horse race but turned into the Grand National'

    Tim Sherwood column

    I would have taken the Crystal Palace job if I’d been offered it soon after my interview... but the whole process dragged on so I had to pull out
    Eden Hazard: Young, gifted... not yet perfect

    Eden Hazard: Young, gifted... not yet perfect

    Eden Hazard admits he is still below the level of Ronaldo and Messi but, after a breakthrough season, is ready to thrill Chelsea’s fans
    Tim Howard: I’m an old dog. I don’t get too excited

    Tim Howard: I’m an old dog. I don’t get too excited

    The Everton and US goalkeeper was such a star at the World Cup that the President phoned to congratulate him... not that he knows what the fuss is all about
    Match of the Day at 50: Show reminds us that even the most revered BBC institution may have a finite lifespan – thanks to the opposition

    Tom Peck on Match of the Day at 50

    The show reminds us that even the most revered BBC institution may have a finite lifespan – thanks to the opposition