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Circles of Confusion    by April Henry order for
Circles of Confusion
by April Henry
Order:  USA  Can
HarperTorch, 2000 (1999)
Hardcover, Paperback

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* *   Reviewed by Theresa Ichino

April Henry presents a tale of an enigmatic little painting, perhaps a Vermeer. If authentic, it is a lost treasure worth millions. However, to Claire Montrose, heartily sick of her drab life as a vanity licence verifier for the Motor Vehicles Division of Oregon, it is a reminder that life can hold beauty and wonder. Her quest to authenticate the painting is more a search for adventure than concern for its monetary value. On the verge of her thirty-fifth birthday, Claire fears becoming a faded nonentity like great-aunt Cady, who left her the contents of her trailer when she died. Among those contents was the disputed Vermeer.

Encouraged by her elderly housemate Charlie (Charlotte), Claire sets off on an adventure to New York, to have the painting examined by experts. In doing so, she defies Evan, her oh-so-cautious beau, who orders her - orders! - to stop wasting money. The delights of the big city include the delectable Troy Nowell, an appraiser at the auction house she visits, and Dante Bonner, a piratically handsome artist she meets at an art gallery.

The painting excites more interest than Claire had anticipated. Her room in New York is searched, and she returns to Portland to find Charlie missing and their house ransacked. A woman resembling Claire, who drives an identical car, is found murdered. Soon Claire is on the run, with several dubious characters on her trail. Are Troy or Dante on the villains' side? In her desperate search for Charlie, scrambling to stay alive, Claire finds help from an unexpected source - her own family.

Circles of Confusion is fast and satisfying fun; but its author also brings to light a grim time period when wartime atrocities permitted yet another violation of helpless victims, the theft of their valuables. Great-aunt Cady's diary shows glimpses of that world; and Charlie, a survivor of Dachau, is a poignant reminder that such horrors were real.

It is a pleasure to meet a canny, fast-thinking heroine who does NOT fall into every trap set for her and who outsmarts the villains on a regular basis. Equally satisfying is the author's belief in integrity and right-minded behaviour. Not only do Claire's sister and brother-in-law come through when she needs them; she shows herself to be fair-minded and generous. Virtue is rewarded at the end: Claire boots the anally-retentive Evan and shakes the dust of her cubicle in the vanity plate department. This is an extremely well-written first novel. Let us hope that April Henry gives us more of Claire and her adventures.

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