By JENNIFER PERRY
When reality becomes too painful, who hasn’t wished to be able to run away to another city or even another country—a place without reminders or other people who remember what we can’t forget or face. In Collin Kelley’s new novel Conquering Venus, Martin Paige does and seizes that chance when his best friend Diane, a high school teacher, invites him to accompany her to Paris, as a chaperone for a group of students on their graduation trip.
Still grieving his lover Peter’s suicide and consumed by despair, Martin makes the life-altering decision to accept her offer. He is immediately drawn into an escalating relationship with David McLaren, one of the students. David appears by turns affectionate and cruel as he flirts with Martin, rebukes him and retreats into alcohol. But David, like Peter, is conflicted with his gut emotions and what his parents have taught and expect from him. Diane’s frank irritation with this situation apparently is to keep her friend, her student and herself out of dangers emotional, physical and legal. We learn later she’s buried her own secrets that won’t lay still and stay quiet.
Before Martin leaves for Paris, and while he’s there, a mysterious woman keeps appearing in his dreams and even as a vision when he’s awake. He and the enigmatic Irène Laureaux are entwined with a connection both emotional and physical even before they meet. On identical places on their left hands are matching tattoos. Martin and Peter had the same uncommon tribal symbols, meaning “equal but opposite” tattooed on their left hands as symbols of commitment, as did Irène and her deceased husband, Jean-Louis.
After landing in Paris and checking into the hotel, Martin is stunned to see that this same woman who has been haunting him lives in the apartment across from his hotel room. They are quickly drawn to each other and begin spending time together in her apartment. A debilitating agoraphobia imprisons Irène in her apartment, where she works as a book editor and spies on the hotel guests. She tells Martin of Jean-Louis’ involvement in the student/worker riots of 1968 in Paris and of his death in the riots. More diplomatic in expression than Diane, Irène also warns Martin to be cautious in his handling of David.
As the student trip draws to a close, a devastating terrorist attack occurs on a Paris metro station. The bombing forces a turning point, making the characters face the truths of their own lives. Secrets are exposed, creating unexpected outcomes, some that foresee drastic consequences. Emotional revelations result in Irène and David having to look truth in the face and redirect their emotions.
It is unfortunate that the top line on the back of the book describes it as “Gay Literary Fiction.” Even with the homosexual themes, the characters and their stories will resonate with most all readers, not just those in the gay community. Kelley does an excellent job of taking us seamlessly into the paranormal scenes and back to reality, neither missing the proverbial beat or losing one bit of his hold on the reader. And sometimes the most explosive moments for these characters in Conquering Venus, are the quiet ones, the epiphanies, and the ones where truth and memories won’t stay put in their hiding places.