Honest Illusions by Nora Roberts

I wrote this review in 2004 of Nora’s 1998 Honest Illusions.  I need to read it again. 🙂

Honest Illusions is, quite simply, Nora Roberts at her best. And since romance novels 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 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 spies scrawny, 12-year-old runaway Luke Callahan deftly picking pockets in his audience, what is Max to do but invite the boy for a post-performance chat?

Luke is enthralled with Max’s magic act and cannot resist an invitation to come backstage after the show. There, Max confronts Luke about his thievery; then surprisingly offers him a meal, a bed and a job as a roadie. Skittish Luke wants only to make a clean getaway until he meets the lovely and really, really stacked Lily Bates, Max’s lover and magic assistant. Luke falls a little bit in love with sweet, warm-hearted Lily and relaxes his guard 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 with a setup this good, Luke can deal with one small, spoiled princess. Besides, she’s promised to teach him card tricks.

It’s apparent to Max that Luke has been beaten and probably sexually abused by his emotionally absent mother’s boyfriend. When Lily sees the physical evidence on the boy’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, Max has conjured up the necessary paperwork to make Luke a permanent member of the family. For the first time in his short life, Luke learns what it is to love and be loved unconditionally.

With the summer tour over and Luke’s plan to skip school altogether quashed, life settles into a comfortable routine. Luke has discovered his grand passion: Magic. His hunger to learn everything 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 grow, Luke and Roxy are growing up. Their relationship roils and bubbles. After all, they aren’t really brother and sister.

Did I mention that Max Nouvelle is no ordinary carnival magician? Max is a thief, and a great one at that. He suffers no moral qualms, justifying the practice as “an ancient and valuable art, a time-honored profession.” 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 an illusion that Roxanne knows nothing of the real family business. Roxy, being a very clever girl, has known all along — and she wants in. Max is incapable of denying Roxy anything and makes good on his promise to take her in after she finishes college.

It seems that life couldn’t be any better for this band of four. They live in a gracious home in the Garden District and both of their businesses are thriving. The Nouvelle family magic act has become, bigger, better, and internationally acclaimed. Roxanne has perfected a glittering montage of ethereal illusions and Luke’s death-defying escapes are knocking them dead. Television specials and venues such as Radio City Music Hall and the Kennedy Center have become the norm. And then there are the meticulously planned, dead-of-night forays into the homes of the Very Rich.

Well, okay, maybe life isn’t quite perfect. Roxanne has adored Luke with all the passion in a little girl’s heart romantic heart since she first laid eyes on him, and she’s been falling in love with him ever since. Luke is, and always has been, her hero. As for Luke, he’s played the role of protective older brother for so long that he’s come to believe it. How can he resolve his guilt over his evolving unbrotherly feelings for Roxy? When this star-crossed pair become lovers at last, it’s the best kind of magic. Wouldn’t you know that an old enemy bearing the mother of all grudges against the Nouvelles is about to show up?

Luke and Roxanne are one of those larger than life couples whose highs and lows are, well, higher and lower than those of us ordinary mortals. Both are impossibly beautiful and talented. But I had no trouble falling in love with Luke for his sense of honor and responsibility, his heartbreaking vulnerability, and his underlying sweetness. And then, of course, there is his ponytail. Scrape me off the ceiling. A ponytail.

While Luke remains my romance hero gold standard, Roxanne is strong, unafraid, and smart as a whip; a match for him in every way. Not to mention, she really is a witch-ay woman and sparks do fly from her fingertips.

There are plot devices here that in the hands of a less talented storyteller would seem trite and contrived. We have lovers keeping Big Secrets and telling Big Lies, a sociopathic villain who is all evil all the time, and parents who (despite the criminal thing) are just a little too wonderful. We’ve also got complex family dynamics, moral ambiguity (the criminal thing), self-sacrifice, loss, and redemption. Count me in.

Nora made enchanting magic out of the tried and true. She’s a superstar. When she’s hot, no one does it better. It’s magic.

BLUE MOON for sentimental reasons. This is the book that turned me into a romance reader. Thank you, Nora Roberts.

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