The Pretender is the fourth in a series, The Men of Pride County, set in Kentucky during and after the Civil War. Deacon Sinclair, having survived the war that took his fatherís life, has lost the plantation his father died to defend. Yankees have bought the mortgage; Deacon and his mother are virtually homeless and without resources in a county whose economy has been devastated by the war and its aftermath.
This is a grim opening scene that becomes only more appalling when it becomes clear that the carpetbagger in question is a woman Deacon deceived, seduced and abandoned during his years as a Confederate spy. Garnet Davis has come, husband and four-year-old son in tow, for revenge, and she offers to employ the indigent Sinclairs -- an offer they are not in a position to refuse. This man of Pride County has been laid low indeed.
I confess that I had to check the ending on this one, since it seemed utterly impossible for these two characters -- one who is stiff-necked, repressed and guilt-ridden in the extreme, and one who has been so grievously wronged -- to find happiness in one lifetime. The good news is that all is not as it seems in the opening chapter; the bad news is that the author is not particularly successful in fleshing out these complicated characters and making their actions believable.
Deacon Sinclair has been a victim of an emotionally abusive father. Heís been raised to put honor and duty first and feelings last. He has sacrificed every desire of his own, including his relationship with Garnet, on the altar of filial responsibility. He is portrayed as a man whose every healthy impulse has been somehow corrupted by the family and cultural expectations heís been raised to obey. When he encounters Garnet in the course of an assignment, he is attracted to her youthful honesty and to the image of himself he sees in her eyes -- the image of a pretender.
The scenes where Deacon persuades Garnet to tell him her secrets, and seduces her into caring for him, are among the best in the book. Heís a cad and he knows it, but she doesnít. While heís seducing her with his false portrayal of a wounded Yankee soldier, she seduces him by believing his falsehoods and reflecting them back to him as truth. As much as he desires her, he wants even more to be the person she believes him to be.
Garnet is a pretty standard Unawakened Innocent. When she meets Deacon she is caring single-handedly for her fatherís farm while he serves as a telegrapher for the Union army. His success in that job is based on a code which Garnet, a mathematical whiz, has designed. It is this code that Deacon has been assigned to discover. Garnet also suffers from asthma. This is typical of a number of places where suspension of disbelief is crucial to the story. A beautiful young girl, whose asthma is exacerbated by cold weather, has been left alone by her doting father to tend a working farm in the dead of winter? While armies and deserters criss-cross the countryside?
These characters become much less comprehensible when the story shifts to Pride County, five years later. Deacon becomes less an individual and more of an icon representing humiliation and regret. Garnet is almost unrecognizable. We know that she has had a child and now has a husband with enough money to purchase a plantation, but we donít know much about how that came about. She has morphed from a hesitant innocent into a determined, rather insensitive woman whose motivations are muddled in her own and the readerís minds. Some of the necessary information seems to be deliberately withheld in an effort to generate suspense, but this Garnet seems to lack the self-awareness and presence she possessed earlier in the story.
Suspension of disbelief becomes an even more important requirement as the reader tries to understand the events that take place in Pride County. Garnetís actions are supposedly motivated by a desire to secure the future of her four-year-old son; a child who is routinely forgotten or left on his own whenever itís convenient to the plot. Although she is supposedly a brilliant businesswoman, Garnet routinely misinterprets the motivations of various characters and fails to recognize evidence of duplicity or malice.
The mysterious figure of Garnetís husband seems to be at various times supporting her and plotting against her. Secondary characters appear to be villains in one scene, old family friends in another. It may be that these characters were intended to be complex and multi-faceted, but they appear incoherent instead. Some things, such as how the plantation was lost in the first place, or how Garnet came to find out about it, are never adequately explained. The requisite happy ending depends too much on coincidence and contrivance. It may be that a reader familiar with the previous books would not find these plot issues so distracting, but this book does not stand well on its own.
The first three Pride County books received 4 heart recommendations from other reviewers on this site. If youíre unfamiliar with this author, I suggest you start with one of those earlier books. If youíve been waiting with bated breath for Deaconís story, Iím afraid you will be disappointed; The Pretender is the last in a series that probably should have ended one book sooner.