It's 1913 and Cora Diehl, a teacher-in-training, has just arrived home for summer break. When no one comes to pick her up from the train station she knows something is amiss. She finally arrives home, thanks to a ride from a neighbor, only to find her mother crying over the collapsed form of her father.
It's not long before Cora's father suffers another stroke, this one far more serious. Shortly thereafter, Montana copper magnate Wallace Kensington arrives at the farm and makes an outrageous claim: that he, not Alan Diehl, is Cora's father. Mrs. Diehl quietly corroborates that when she was young she worked as a maid in Mr. and Mrs. Kensington's grand home. Shamefully, she admits to having engaged in an affair with Wallace Kensington and that Cora was a product of that affair. Cora is stunned to learn that Alan Diehl, who has loved her as his own her entire life, married her mother knowing she was pregnant with Kensington's child.
It's a lot to take in, to be sure, but Cora is even more shocked when her mother encourages her to take Mr. Kensington up on his generous offer of claiming the privileges of bearing his name. If she agrees, Alan Diehl could receive the medical help he needs — and Cora could be sure of funds to return to school in the fall. But accepting his offer also means the she would have to join Wallace Kensington's three legitimate children on a grand tour of Europe that will last the entire summer.
Life on their hardscrabble Montana farm has never been easy, but another drought and her father's ailing health can bode only ill for Cora's hoped-for return to school in the fall. Faced with an impossible choice, Cora accepts Wallace Kensington's offer and is swept away into a world of privilege and snobbery that she'd never imagined. As she struggles for a hint of acceptance from her half-siblings, she finds herself drawn to William McCabe, the assistant guide on their grand tour. But there are rules about romance on the tour and, although Will is as drawn to Cora as she is to him, allowing anyone to note his attraction to her could be disastrous. He knows funding his own return to university depends upon the success of this tour and that he must abide by all the rules, both express and implied, or risk delaying his hopes for the future indefinitely. It is an exquisite sort of torture, watching Cora blossom into the new role life has handed her and it is difficult for Will to keep his distance.
As she travels through continents, parlors and ballrooms, Cora Diehl Kensington maneuvers in and out of her party's graces, but finds herself firmly ensconced in the affections of a powerful French nobleman. But until she is able to accept who she is and where she's come from, Cora can't hope to find a measure of peace or be able to decide which of the two men she's drawn to will be the one who will hold her heart.
Glamorous Illusions is the first book of Lisa T. Bergren's new series, The Grand Tour. Setting the glamour of new American wealth against the backdrop of old-world European decadence, Bergren has outdone herself in evoking the romance of life among the pre-WWI privileged classes. As Cora moves from farm to mansion to ship to palace, the reader is gifted with a vivid sense of place, with each setting held to the next by the wonder of Cora's experience and Will's corresponding (and slightly jaded) knowledge of the same. Whether the characters indulge in the muted, sunshiny sweetness of the outdoors or the enchanted richness of a drawing room soiree, Bergren's deft prose brings to mind scenes from period films such as Somewhere in Time, Titanic and Tuck Everlasting.
Although Cora is drawn to Will, the subsequent tepidity of his affection opens her up to acknowledge attention from others. When wealthy Lord Richelieu singles her out, Cora is both vulnerable and curious enough to enjoy his favor. Although Bergren's description of this handsome (and surprisingly thoughtful) French nobleman is certainly alluring, his formal name couldn't help but bring to mind a certain nefarious cardinal made famous by Alexandre Dumas and, due to that unavoidable reference, I much preferred when Cora referred to him by his given name, Pierre. There are two more books in the series and, while I doubt Lord Richelieu will ever completely go over to the dark side, I do so love a good love triangle, and I look forward to Pierre being the biggest obstacle (after Will himself) to Will finding his place within Cora's heart and the Kensingtons' world.
Set just one year after the Titanic disaster, Glamorous Illusions is a lovely beginning to a series that transports readers to another time where they, along with Cora, can ponder the intricacies of family identity, the mystery of romance and the beauty of all the world has to offer on The Grand Tour.
(This review originally appeared at USA Today's romance fiction blog, Happy Ever After)