The Pretender

The Impostor by Celeste Bradley
(St. Martin’s, $6.50, PG-13) ISBN 0-312-98486-3
Celeste Bradley continues her Liar’s Club trilogy with an entertaining tale in The Impostor. In fact, the book could have easily been called The Impostors, as neither the hero nor the heroine are what they seem. There is more than one impostor afoot.

Young widow Clara Simpson has been making waves in the ton as the mysterious Sir Thorogood, an elusive caricature artist whose political cartoons have set tongues wagging as high as the Prince Regent himself. Unbeknownst to her, the latest Sir Thorogood cartoon, of four noblemen worshipping a woman of obviously ill repute, has come too close to a truth hidden for years, one that could topple the government were it made public. To Clara, the cartoons represent a way to accumulate enough money to leave her in-law’s residence and purchase a cottage of her own.

In order to flush out Sir Thorogood, Dalton Montmorency, Lord Etheridge, leader of a spy network, impersonates the cartoonist himself. Dressed as a dandified fop, Dalton makes appearances at various society functions. Clara is incensed. How dare this Impostor claim her hard work for himself! Clara is determined to unmask him, but first she must identify him. To that end, she recreates herself as the merry Widow Simpson, bird-brained society matron.

An unlikely but plausible set of circumstances bring Clara and Dalton together in the house next door to her in-law’s, with Clara dressed as a maid and Dalton as a thief. “Rose” the maid and “Monty” the housebreaker are attracted to one another, and subsequent meetings only fan the flames. Eventually they fling caution to the winds and enjoy a night of passion in an attic. But someone is out to kill Sir Thorogood, and eventually Clara and Dalton must deal with each other, without any more disguises. Soon they are entangled together in a complicated plot against the Crown, and it’s hard to tell the villains from the heroes. Against this backdrop, the lonely widow and the even-lonelier spymaster find their perfect match.

This would have been a five-heart book were it not for the final climax, which is brought on by Clara doing something ridiculously foolish and out of character. Up until that point, Dalton and Clara are as delightful a pair as a reader could wish. Their interaction sparkles with wit and intensity, and the complicated plot will keep a reader on her toes. Dalton is wonderful as a man who has been brought up to put the interests of the crown above everything else. His mentor, Lord Liverpool, is the Prime Minister and duty to country has driven Dalton’s emotions deep underground. It is Clara/Rose who opens him up, and even then, old habits die hard.

Clara is quite intelligent for most of the book. She’s a realist, and her situation as a poor relation is tepidly unpleasant. She knows it will be up to her to make a better life for herself. To that end, her talent at drawing is presented as entirely plausible, as is her fascination with the masked thief who enters her neighbor’s attic. It’s a shame that the author chose to bring about the denouement by making Clara into a headstrong idiot at a convenient time. This was especially irritating because Dalton and Clara’s relationship had evolved to the point where she had absolutely no reason not to trust him completely, as he’d already risked his life several times for her.

The Impostor isn’t a book to read quickly. The complexity of the plot demands a certain amount of attention, even as the romance simmers. Celeste Bradley has proven she can structure a story with plenty of twists and turns to fascinate the reader, as well as a smoldering romance that ignites in grand fashion. It will be interesting to see what she has in store for book three, The Spy, featuring James Cunnington (the brother of The Pretender). I’m looking forward to it.

--Cathy Sova

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