Katie is a young widow in Boston, 1912, struggling with lingering trauma from her husband’s death. She is also a painter who always dreamed of living as an artist in Venice. After a year of floundering, she takes the plunge and moves to Venice to pursue her dream. She begins by painting portraits of Rusala, an exotic and beautiful ballet dancer. Katie’s paintings are good enough to get attention from fellow artists and gallery owners, but through Rusala she is introduced to a more bohemian world of dancers and performers. Soon Rusala’s allure as a muse becomes a deeper attraction, and the two begin a passionate affair. Katie’s desire for Rusala and her need to establish a career compete for her focus, and secrets from her past continue to haunt her. If she is to find success she must deal with her demons and recover her inner strength – but not before Rusala reveals a secret of her own.
The character of Katie is at times confusing and self-contradictory. The truth behind her husband’s death is never explored once revealed, missing an opportunity to understand her more fully. The prose wavers in places, weighed down by similes, odd adjective choices, and random expletives. But the chemistry between Katie and Rusala is undeniable, and their passion is both highly erotic and tastefully written. Venice in 1912 is described in detail; the author’s love for that city and the various forms of art it inspired are obvious. Relief is not quite a character study and not quite a love story, but something in between. Overall, however, it is a promising debut.