We gave it a C
Having identified the problem in this much-publicized first novel, Diana Hammond (the author of an unpublished sequel to Gone With the Wind) might want to follow it with a self-help manual — Women Who Fall in Love With Men Who Fall in Love With Themselves. Although it’s not just women who fall for Barrett Rossignol, the golden boy-man, the irresistible narcissistic weasel, around whom The Impersonator takes shape. Barrett sets the plot in lurching motion by seducing Robert de Peña, a suave Latin American professor, through an uncanny transvestite impersonation of Robert’s late wife, Theo. (A famous cabaret performer who died under mysterious circumstances, Theo had been Barrett’s one true love, not counting himself.) When Jane Donovan, Robert’s new wife, discovers his sexual obsession with the Theo impersonator, she leaves him, but later Barrett, this time in the guise of the Ideal Sensitive Man, ensnares her, too. Another woman, whom he has dropped for Jane, commits suicide. Even a writer rendered immune to him by her lesbianism feels enough of his shimmering, hallucinatory charm to describe him as ”great company. The best. He’s whatever you want him to be.” He’s erotic, romantic catnip, a composite, she says, of ”Peter Pan…Dorian Gray…Billy Budd. Elvis. Heathcliff.”
Sound implausible? The whole book, a tissue of contrivances and coincidences, is implausible, but fantasy has to have a few shreds of contemporary reality if it’s going to attract paying customers. Judging by the brisk sales a few years back of the Peter Pan Syndrome, a cautionary guide to male immaturity, there seem to be a lot of icy, feckless Barretts at large. So there must be a lot of rueful women, many of them potential readers of this book, who will identify with Jane, its Barrett-afflicted heroine. Jane practically begs for readers’ empathy; she is described by one character as a ”Jane Austen girl” and by the author as a woman with ”strikingly off-center good looks,” who ”had always wanted, more than anything, to be wise.” Which is what she isn’t when she allows herself to be swept off her feet by the sublimely cute and ingratiating Barrett, but eventually sense gets the better of sensibility and she ends up with Mr. Probably Right.
The novel gets a potboiling head of steam from Barrett’s cunning deceptions and from the private eye conjured up to deal with the possibility of foul play in Theo’s death. But its genuinely literary pleasures are incidental. I liked Hammond’s prose postcard of Egypt (”Baked for centuries, peeling, corrupted, done for, rosy Luxor remained a stubborn romantic”) and her description of a Brazilian downpour (”She went out to the balcony to watch the wide sheets of silver water fall straight down, precise as guillotines, from a low, ocher sky”). All of Hammond’s cleverness and pretty prose go to wrap a very cold fish, but for what he’s worth, she has caught him. C