Intentionally like a Victorian melodrama, Colegate's latest (Deceits of Time, 1988, etc.) has mysterious characters, hints of wrongdoing in high places, and a hero and heroine who virtuously resist temptation, though not without some regrets. A retired history teacher is the narrator of a long-ago summer in England. As he makes his daily round through the city of Bath, he introduces the setting and the actors and actresses, as it were, who will have roles in the small drama that then begins to unfold: In 1876, the city, once a fashionable resort, is decaying and forgotten. Hoping to revitalize their town, the city fathers have decided to build a grand hotel and spa. A competition for the design has been organized; Queen Victoria has promised to visit; and the city is agog with anticipation. A mysterious woman, Madame Sofia, who claims cousinship with the Tsar, is new in town. A spiritualist as well, her visions of the city's nastier undercurrents are unsettling but accurate. Meanwhile, the voluptuous wife of the City Surveyor plots to get her husband's design approved; another newcomer, Caspar Freeling, who is ``prepared to be more or less whatever they wanted him to be, on condition that the game progressed,'' seems to lead a double life; and the beautiful and good Charlotte, married and devoted mother of two, is attracted to Stephen Collingwood, the curate, who works with the poor of the city. Stephen's love for Charlotte and sense of inadequacy in his ministry provoke a crisis of faith, resolved only at the close by an appropriately heroic sacrifice. The Queen visits; the villains are exposed; and the hero and heroine come through. That the narrator turns out to be the grandson of Charlotte is irrelevant if not anticlimactic. Rich in atmospherics, settings, and characters—Stephen and Charlotte are unusually vivid and convincing—and yet the implicit melodrama and satire of city boosterism and Victorian manners is never more than a clever conceit. Disappointing, then, despite so much that's good.
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