Mirror Image by Shirley Hailstock
(Arabesque, $4.99, PG-13) ISBN: 0-7860-0521-1
****
Three years ago social worker Aurora "Rory" Alexander parlayed her uncanny resemblance to reigning talk show diva Marsha Chambers into a new career as a celebrity look-alike. She made personal appearances, attended parties, went on cruises, appeared on local TV programs, and did photo sessions with tourists.

Her lucrative new pursuit gave her an escape from impending job burnout and let her remain in the home in which she grew up. Most important, the increased income helped Rory keep her mother, who has Alzheimer's Disease, in a good long-term care facility.

But the life of a celebrity look-alike is not all glitz and glamour. "Ever since the Marsha Chambers Show aired for the first time Aurora hadn't had an identity to call her own. No matter where she went people mistook her for Marsha Chambers, crowding around her, asking for autographs. Even when she explained that she wasn't Marsha, people didn't believe her."

Rory and Marsha come face-to-face when the talk show tapes a program on celebrity look alikes. Rory appears on the program with the ersatz Marilyn Monroe, Elvis, James Dean, Nancy Reagan, Pat Nixon and Michael Jordan. For Marsha, imitation is not necessarily the sincerest nor most welcome form of flattery. The talk show queen accuses Rory of having herself "surgically altered" to look like her.

Rory is humiliated and walks out of the studio in a huff after the taping ends. When a kidnapper mistakes her for Marsha and tries to force her into a van, the show's producer, Duncan West, hears her screams and rushes to the parking lot to help her. For a split second even Duncan thought she was Marsha!

Rory and Duncan are immediately attracted to each another. The flirtation and banter are light and easy. Ironically, it is Marsha who suggests a way the two can spend more time together. Unnerved by the attempted abduction, she orders Duncan to give Rory a job that's "not too close" in an effort to confuse any would-be kidnappers. It's an offer Rory can't afford to refuse. Besides, the parking lot incident has been glossed over as the action of an overzealous fan.

When the talk show diva throws a tantrum and refuses to do her show, Rory is given an opportunity to guest-host the program. Her stage presence and the interviewing and people skills she developed in social services make her a good choice for the temporary task. Besides, she is being protected and paid a hefty salary while the police look for the culprit. Plus, she gets to work with Duncan every day. It's a tough job, but somebody's got to do it!

In Mirror Image, Shirley Hailstock makes a commentary on the plight of the so-called "sandwich generation" mostly female Baby Boomers who are raising their families and caring for older parents. While Rory is single and has no children, she has siblings who are unwilling or unable to contribute fair share toward their mother's care. The burden and responsibility fall on Rory at the expense of her personal life. Hailstock weaves her interpretations into the narrative without moralizing.

Mirror Image is a smart book, an honest book. Hailstock never insults her readers by resorting to cheap tricks. There are no misunderstandings caused by the wrong woman being found in the wrong bed. There is no prior relationship between Marsha and Duncan that could have complicated the natural pacing of Rory and Duncan's romance.

The author refused to take the easy route and simply have Rory impersonate Marsha. She didn't. In Rory, what we see is what we get. The plot, character development and the narrative allow the reader, the fictional television audience and Duncan to be aware of the differences between the two women at all times.

This clearly is Rory's story. Marsha, the superstar, is relegated to a supporting role. This is a romance, first and foremost, and Hailstock lets very little get in the way of Duncan and Rory's relationship. It is, however, the book's major strength as well as its minor weakness. There is a promising secondary romance in Mirror Image that we only get glimpses of. Perhaps a novella or a full-length spin off is in the works.

How smart is Mirror Image? The novel is so smart, that when Rory comments on an action-adventure script Duncan has written, it sounds strangely like a self-review of Mirror Image. "On the surface everything looks fine, but beneath are secrets that plunge them into a life-and-death struggle . . . It has great characters who try to protect each other. The action is riveting, and the developing relationship between the two main characters is natural. One doesn't overshadow the other."

Couldn't have said it better myself. Mirror Image is a recommended read.

--Gwendolyn Osborne


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