Honest Illusions is, quite simply, Nora Roberts at her best. And since romance novels just don't get any better than Nora at the top of her game, that's saying something. When I first read this book as a novice romance reader in 1997, I was blown away. "Oh! Ding ding ding! So this is why my sister reads these books!" Six years and a thousand plus romances later, I'm happy to say that I found myself just as enthralled the second time around. This one, oh baby, holds up.
Max Nouvelle is no everyday carnival side show magician. He is The Great Nouvelle, Conjurer Extraordinaire. So when his practiced eye catches scrawny, 12-year-old runaway Luke Callahan skillfully picking pockets and purses in the audience, what is he to do but invite the boy for a post-performance chat?
Luke is mesmerized by Max's magic show and can't resist a summons to come backstage after the show. There, Max confronts Luke with his thievery, then surprisingly offers him a meal, a bed, and a job as a roadie. Luke is skittish and wants only to make a clean getaway - until he meets the lovely Lily Bates, Max's lover and magic assistant. Luke falls a little bit in love with the sweet, warm-hearted and really, really stacked Lily and lets his guard down enough to accept Max's offer.
The only drawback is the presence of eight-year-old Roxanne, Max's snotty little brat of a kid. But, hey, with a setup this good, Luke can deal with one small, spoiled princess. Besides, she's teaching him card tricks.
It's apparent to Max that Luke has been beaten and probably subjected to a darker form of abuse by his emotionally absent mother's boyfriend, a particularly nasty piece of work. When Lily sees the physical evidence on Luke's scarred back, Max and Lily make the only decision they can: Luke is theirs now. When the carnival moves on, eventually arriving at the family home in New Orleans' Garden District, Max has managed to conjure the necessary paperwork to make Luke a permanent part of the family. For the first time in his life, Luke knows what it is to love and be loved unconditionally.
With the summer tour over and Luke quickly disabused of his plan to skip school altogether, life settles into a comfortable routine. Luke has discovered his grand passion: Magic. His hunger to learn everything that Max can teach him is exceeded only by his desire to outshine Roxy (as competitive a soul as ever lived). The Nouvelle Family act wows them in a French Quarter nightclub, and while their fame and fortune grows, Luke and Roxy's relationship roils and bubbles. After all, they aren't really brother and sister.
Did I mention that Max Nouvelle is no ordinary carnival side show magician? He is a thief, and a great one at that. Max practices "an ancient and valuable art, a time-honored profession" - thievery as romance. He steals only the finest from the wealthiest and Luke is a natural at the family business. Max and Luke, being men and all, are under the illusion that Roxanne doesn't know about this. Roxy, being a clever girl, has known all along - and she wants in. Max is incapable of denying Roxanne anything and he makes good on his promise to take her into the business when she finishes college.
It seems that life couldn't be any better for this band of four. They live in a beautiful house in the Garden District and their business (both of them) is thriving. The Nouvelle Family magic show has become bigger, better, and internationally acclaimed. Roxy has perfected a glittering montage of ethereal illusions and Luke's death-defying escape acts are knocking them dead. Television specials and tours playing venues like Radio City Music Hall and the Kennedy Center have become the norm. And then there are those meticulously planned, dead-of-night forays into the homes of the very rich.
Well, okay, maybe life isn't perfect. Roxanne has adored Luke with all the passion of a little girl's romantic heart since she first laid eyes on him at the age of eight and she's been falling in love with him since she was a teen. Luke is and always has been her hero. As for Luke, he's played the role of overprotective big brother for so long that he's come to believe it. How can he resolve his guilt over the fact that his feelings for Roxy have evolved into something decidedly unbrotherly? When this star-crossed pair become lovers at last, it's the best kind of magic. Wouldn't you know that an old enemy is about to show up bearing the mother of all grudges against the Nouvelles - and Luke in particular?
Luke and Roxanne are one of those larger than life couples whose highs and lows are, well, higher and lower than those most of us mortals experience. Both are impossibly beautiful and talented. (I hate those kind of people, don't you?) But I had no problem at all falling in love with Luke for his sense of honor and responsibility, his heartbreaking vulnerability, and his underlying sweetness. And, then, of course, there's his ponytail. (Scrape me off the ceiling - I'm wet clay, jello, putty for a man with a ponytail.)
While Luke remains my gold standard against whom all romantic heroes are judged, Roxanne is strong, confident and unafraid - a match for him in every way. Not to mention, she is a witch woman and sparks do fly from her fingertips. I can't imagine a more perfect pair to prove the theory that there really is such a thing as a soulmate.
There are plot devices here that in the hands of a less talented story teller might seem overdone and contrived. Lovers keeping Big Secrets and telling Big Lies. A sociopathic villain who is all evil all the time. Parents who, despite their chosen profession, are a little too wonderful. Then there's the really juicy stuff. Complex family dynamics. Issues of morality (thievery as a glorious calling?) Self-sacrifice, loss, and redemption.
Aspiring romance novelists would do well to study how an absolute master can make magic out of the tried and true - such magic that there is one moment that made me gasp and brought tears to my eyes when I first read it six years ago. I'm deliriously happy to say that same scene, indeed the whole of Luke and Roxy's magical story, still packs the same emotional punch.
If you love (as I do) a big, messy, complex saga peopled with lovable characters who don't always do the right thing, this book won't disappoint. This is why Nora Roberts is a superstar. When she's hot, no one does it better. She has the power of enchantment - (bear with me one last time) a magical gift.
LLB: The reader-review for this book was submitted after AAR Reviewer Jen Schendel had written her own DIK review but before it was posted.
-- Diana Nichols
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