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Book Review: Conquering Venus by Collin Kelley

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Let’s be upfront: the category on the back of Collin Kelley’s debut novel, Conquering Venus, says “Gay Literary Fiction.” As a heterosexual woman — had I not known Collin, read his insightful political poetry, I might never have picked it up. But I do know Collin, did read the book, and I’m glad I did, for in doing so, I realized something more important than anything else I will say: “Gay Literary Fiction&rdquo ;— or at least Kelley’s Conquering Venus, which constitutes the sum total of books from this category which I have read — concerns itself less with overt sexual acts and more about what it means to be at home in one’s own body. I know why Kelley’s publisher wanted the book labeled “gay,” but I also know that this book has much to interest the heterosexual reader.

Kelley’s characters are multi-dimensional, his plot mature, and while the book is “gay” in detail, the theme and intent are universal: claiming and letting go — accepting responsibility for one’s own actions and refusing to blame one’s self for the actions of others — are psychological tasks or developmental stages that concern us all. Also of interest is the fact that those who speak most openly are no less troubled than those whose fear is evident. Kelley carefully and masterfully creates characters who must deal with the difficult situations in their various pasts — broken marriages, betrayal, sexual confusion and dishonesty, death, suicide, and family acceptance or denial of these — and a plot that draws them together on a trip to Paris.

Shortly after Irene and Martin meet, they “sit on the balcony for hours … discussing art and poetry, dancing around their true selves, the strange desire to confess deep secrets.” (p. 45) But why? Away from the confines of home and with alcohol flowing to remove inhibition, the characters become free to ignore convention. Or are they now free to explore it? Each effect has its cause; then effects become sorely entangled. Dreams play a large role in the plot of this novel as does the seeming coincidence. Kelley uses italics to help the reader differentiate between live action and dreams. The dead play a role, too, as the diary of a Parisian professor, hidden in the house that Irene never leaves, gives purpose as to why Martin and the older woman, an agoraphobic who uses binoculars to watch the goings on at the hotel where the group are staying, come together at all.

The situation in which Peter died leads, at least in part, to Martin’s present attraction to eighteen-year-old David, with the complicated attraction/repulsion David feels in response, and his resulting, problematic drinking. Not all gays are created equal? Well, not everyone’s family is the same. The book’s situations do not lead to pat answers. The truth about Diane leaving her ex-husband comes out, proving equally confusing. The characters weave their way through the violence of bombings, a hospital’s mental ward, the landmarks in Paris — The Louvre, the Eiffel Tower, Notre-Dame — and finally home before the novel’s culmination. The book is a page turner and kept me up ’til 5:00 am, before the story came to a quitting point, where Diane, the burned-out teacher, and her younger friend, Martin — chaperones on a school trip — end up moving separately to Europe, leaving their problematic lives in America.

But Kelley does not end Conquering Venus by wrapping things up in that proverbial neat, little package, nor does he leave us in a world we do not believe possible with everyone riding into the sunset. What Kelley does is offer hope as surely as Martin conquers Venus, exchanging the Venus de Milo for the Winged Victory.

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About Helen Losse

  • Nice work Helen!
    I need to pick up a copy of Collin’s book soon, and his poems 🙂