Sunday, January 06, 2008

THE VENUS DIARIES by Harrison Arnston

I’ve written about Harry Arnston before—I reviewed his novel Act of Passion earlier this year, and in that post I categorically stated that I have enjoyed every Arnston novel I’ve read. And that feeling hasn’t changed one bit since then. I recently re-read the last novel Harry published before his death: The Venus Diaries.

The Venus Diaries is a little different than Arnston’s other work—it fits quite nicely in the thriller category. It is the story of Josephine, a young woman who lost both her father and mother in World War Two France. After the war ends a silent and brutal man adopts her—he was a leader in a partisan group during the war, but when the Nazis were driven out he was declared useless. The man takes his frustrations out on Josephine until she can take no more. She is moved into a school for troubled girls where she excels academically, but there is something missing in Josephine: she doesn’t think like other children.

Josephine looks for weaknesses and angles to manipulate people for her own ends, but she is intelligent enough to cover her motives and convincing enough to make people believe she is anything but the ruthless sociopath she is. When Josephine turns sixteen her beauty attracts a top model agency where she is groomed to be a star—this is where she meets her destiny. A man who calls himself a spy contacts her to help with special jobs. She play-acts at seducing men of power, and then she steals the information they have.

The Venus Diaries spans more than fifty years. It begins in the war torn regions of France, but it doesn’t end until it reaches the highest levels of power in the United States of 1994. There is a large cast of characters that fulfill their obligation to the sprawling plotline well and keep the story interesting. The plot is well formed and intriguing—it has the feel of a sweeping epic without bogging down with too much information and character development. The prose is light and smooth. It captures the story with stark and appealing descriptions of characters and places.

If The Venus Diaries has a weakness it is the limited action—the story is told in a dream-like voice that inhibits both the darkness of the main character and the potentially riveting action scenes. This is easily forgiven however, because of Arnston’s strong grip on the story and its effects on the reader.

The Venus Diaries was Harry Anrston’s last published novel—it was number nine by my count—and if it isn’t his best work, it is very close.

Harper Paperbacks originally published The Venus Diaries in January 1994.

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