In this comic novel, a young con woman plans to steal from a spiritual community but instead finds herself wanting to join their search for truth.
Having run out of money three years ago, Jessabelle Knox wants to return to art school to finish her degree in special makeup effects. Her parents are out of the picture; she now runs confidence games with her uncle Trix, using carefully crafted disguises to better scam the greedy. Though the money’s good, it all seems to get eaten up in expenses, so art school is looking further away than ever. Then they stumble upon a big score: a spiritual community that’s home to a $3 million gold statue. Trix proposes that she join up in disguise so they can steal the Shiva statue. But stealing from a guru? “It sounds so grubby,” Jessabelle says. Despite Trix’s reassurances—“Everybody knows gurus are the biggest con artists around,” he says—Jessabelle’s love of illusion, and an overwhelming desire for art school, Jessabelle soon questions her mission. She likes the residents of Lalliville, is deeply impressed by the guru Lalli, and, through meditation, discovers within herself a longing for truth: “She wanted the luxury of being the same person with everyone.” As Jessabelle develops deeper links with the community, she’ll have to decide where her truest loyalty lies. In her debut novel, Ortner nicely balances comedy with romance—Jessabelle falls for a Lalliville member—and serious spiritual practice. Jessabelle’s awakening may not resonate with skeptical readers, but Ortner describes it vividly; for example: “She felt this intensified love for the trees, the grass, the sky, the clouds, and every other thing she saw, including the Dumpster behind the dining hall.” Convincing details of Jessabelle’s artistry with makeup effects help establish her character, and Ortner interestingly complicates this issue when the wise Lalli questions a simple truth-vs.-illusion formula: “…being a liar and a fraud is one of your best qualities,” she tells Jessabelle. The ending wraps things up a bit too neatly, but it’s still a satisfying read.
An entertaining, unusual mix of the caper novel with dashes of comedy, romance, and spirituality.