The Illusion, by Frank Peretti
Dane and Mandy, a popular magic act for forty years, are tragically separated by a car wreck that claims Mandy’s life—or so everyone thinks. Even as Dane mourns and tries to rebuild his life without her, Mandy, supposedly dead, awakes in the present as the nineteen-year-old she was in 1970. Distraught and disoriented in what to her is the future, she is confined to a mental ward until she discovers a magical ability to pass invisibly through time and space to escape. Alone in a strange world, she uses her mysterious powers to eke out a living, performing magic on the streets and in a quaint coffee shop.
Hoping to discover an exciting new talent, Dane ventures into the coffee shop and is transfixed by the magic he sees, illusions that even he, a seasoned professional, cannot explain. But more than anything, he is emotionally devastated by this teenager who has never met him, doesn’t know him, is certainly not in love with him, but is in every respect identical to the young beauty he first met and married some forty years earlier.
They begin a furtive relationship as mentor and protégée, but even as Dane tries to sort out who she really is and she tries to understand why she is drawn to him, they are watched by secretive interests who not only possess the answers to Mandy’s powers and misplacement in time but also the roguish ability to decide what will become of her.
Frank Peretti has crafted a rich, rewarding story of love and life, loss and restoration, full of twists and mystery. Exceptionally well written, Illusion will soon prove another Peretti classic.
In high school, the majority of my reading was made up of Christian fiction. Sure, I mostly regret that now, as it was time I could have spent reading “serious” literature, but I still have a soft spot for the likes of Ted Dekker, Bill Myers, Randy Alcorn, and Frank Peretti. Which is why this book is an even bigger disappointment than it might otherwise have been. (If you’re worried that Peretti is known for Christian fiction, don’t be. This book is mostly Christian by virtue of what’s missing — no sex, no cursing, no explicit violence — rather than the presence of preaching.)
I think Illusion‘s biggest problem is one of advertising. This book is only a “thriller” if you think Twilight is a thriller, which is to say, it is not. Like Twilight, this book is hundreds of pages of romantic angst with maybe one hundred pages of actual things happening tacked on at the end. It is not kind to your reader (especially when they are expecting a thriller) to make them read 275 pages before any hint of plot appears, and any sensible reader will give up on the book long before that. It took me eight days and a lot of willpower to make myself finish this. (Of course, the fact that the novel violates one of my biggest pet peeves didn’t help. I hate when characters spend most of a book trying to figure out things that the reader already knows.)
With some serious editing, it might not have been so bad. I bet 150 pages could easily be cut with no loss to characterization or story. (Remember, this book is 500 pages.) Part of this is because of Peretti’s writing style (if you can call it a “style”) — he constantly over-describes with absurdly long lists. His sentences are, in general, too long, which slows the reading. The prose is packed with details that are of no consequence: they neither reveal character nor propel the story forward. In short, there’s a lot of filler.
There is also a lot of prose devoted to Mandy’s magic acts, and Peretti describes exactly what someone in the audience would be seeing. I think this is a miscalculation of what works in a novel and what doesn’t. The problem is that magic acts are interesting because you are seeing them, and they are impressive because you “can’t believe your eyes”. Magic is a visual art, and while it is a good background element of this story, it falls apart when it becomes the main focus. It’s funny because Dale, one of the main characters, talks about how wonder is so important in magic — you must fill the audience with wonder. But it is not wondrous to read about someone, say, juggling. It is wondrous to see it. Too much of this book is written like a screenplay instead of a novel.
So for approximately 330 pages, this was a two-star book for me. I had an academic dislike of it for the reasons I’ve mentioned. Then came the One-Two Punch that turned passive dislike to an active contempt. First, one of the characters bashed me over the head with a “moral-to-the-story” so heavy-handed that it makes Victorian novels seem subtle. He literally says, “Here’s the lesson, [man is not omnipotent; only God rules space and time].” Ouch.
Then, about 20 pages later, there is a pretty upsetting scene where a girl is forcefully bound and sexually assaulted on stage in front of a packed Vegas theater. Her bodyguards do nothing. The crowd does nothing. Its implausibility only makes it ickier as a plot element for a novel. Now, I am not sensitive at all, and I’ve read descriptions of far worse acts in other books. But this scene turned me off so much, I would have immediately abandoned this book if I didn’t feel obligated to finish and review it. And it turns out that finishing the book actually makes this scene seem worse in retrospect because it serves no narrative purpose. The event is never mentioned again by any of the characters. Further, the plot thread that I assumed it was picking up (the “dark” side of her ability) fizzles out and is never developed, even though it’s emphasized early in the novel. Purposeful red herring or bad writing — who knows?
Now, like I said, this book is more a romance novel than anything: there’s the meant-to-be couple who must overcome a serious obstacle to be together. Will they or won’t they? That is the question. Unfortunately (and this one is a matter of taste, I suppose), I didn’t feel the love. I felt no urgency in their relationship. I didn’t care whether or not they got together in the end. This might be because I have no heart, but it’s definitely not because I object to May-December romances (I love them). A big part of it is probably because the relationship is first set up as more of a father-daughter bond, and so it felt icky to me later. More than anything, the failure of the romance aspect, for me, doomed the book, which makes sense because it’s the only driving force in the novel.
Anyway, I wish it weren’t so, but this is a one-star book for me. And it might be the only time I’ve felt bad about it, since I do feel a nostalgic attachment to Peretti and Co. But this book requires too much from its reader (due to its inflated page count) to have so many problems.
Disclaimer: I won a free copy of this book through GoodReads’ First Reads program.