Film options for The Impersonator, by Ann Mann, are sure to be promptly snapped up. I’ve seen the film in my mind, so richly drawn and fully developed are the novel’s characters. Not that a film requires such depth when its action moves so quickly…
Double duplicity, innocence, and intrigue rush the story forward, while heavy doses of eroticism heat it up to an X rating—and I’m not sure it could be toned down. A family film this won’t be.
The story takes place in 1960s London, within the entertainment industry. If you’ve never been backstage, in the darkened wings of live theater, in the star’s dressing room, or in an agent’s back office, this book will have you wiping the greasepaint from your fingertips, sweating from the dressing table lightbulbs, and waving away the cigarette smoke and whisky fumes. Having worked in the entertainment world for twenty-five years, I can verify that the competitive atmosphere, individual insecurities, and artist anxiety that Ann Mann has evoked is authentic and exists today.
The book’s two protagonists are intensely likable. One is Jack Merrick, a hard-working, principled entertainment agent whose company has grown to be respected and powerful. Jack inhabits a parallel secret existence that complicates his life; a secret that today would hardly be worthy of a whisper, but in his era, carried moral and criminal repercussions.
The other protagonist is his 15-year-old Rhodesian niece, suddenly and traumatically orphaned and sent to live with Jack, her only kin. Elizabeth is a sharp cookie but, having been raised on a farm in a remote corner of Africa, is woefully naive compared to London teenagers—or any teen raised in a developed nation. With hormones raging and emotions in a delicate state, she’s thrust into a milieu so far outside her realm—actually so far outside most people’s realm—that only her backbone and fortitude see her through. Her coming-of-age is sudden, muddled by her wide-eyed gullibility and bolstered by her pluckiness.
There’s an antagonist, of course. A magnetic Machiavellian who employs his universal charisma to manipulate those who love him—or think they love him—toward his egocentric goal. A magnetic Machiavellian might be a loathsome bore drawn by another author, but Laurie Christian, a physical beauty, is fascinating in a sort of feak-show way: you can’t quite take your eyes off him, waiting to see what he’ll do next, how far he’ll go, how many suckers he can string along. Today we’d label him a consummate social engineer, but back in the 60s his type were simply called con artists.
Finally, a strong supporting role is filled by Sylvia, Jack’s competent partner and confidante. She’s a fully-fleshed character whose vivid past drives her principles today. A character who, I hope, will spin off to feature in this future film’s sequel. (I’m looking very far ahead!) Sylvia is the omniscient glue between the others: their conscience and voice of reason. Reticent, yet brave and stalwart, she grits her teeth and does what needs to be done, through tears, exhaustion, or cold sweat.
Three of the main characters are achingly, palpably lonely, and carry secrets like needy pets. While Jack is weighed down by his, Elizabeth giddily collects her secrets, confiding to her diary then reveling in the grown-up feeling of safeguarding them. Sylvia’s are repressed until events force them to surface and give her the strength to take dramatic action for the sake of those she loves.
Few of us have previously glimpsed the theater and cabaret underworld we inhabit while reading The Impersonator. Ann Mann escorts us like a practiced guide or a trusted friend. And, as if that isn’t a fascinating enough setting for a story, she gives us a peek—then thrusts us inside—even more alien territory (at least to me) when we slip behind the bedroom door to witness the homosexual intimacies between men. The door clicks shut behind us and our eyes are wide open.
Notice I haven’t revealed a word about plot? I can’t bear to give away the slightest hint. Let me just say it’s a page-turner, replete with cheating, lies, deceit, inappropriate intimacies, surprises, rough sex, plot twists, a delightful reference to pickpocketing, drunken orgies, gratifying vengeance, illnesses, injuries, backstage secrets revealed, and a very satisfying ending.
I can’t wait for the film, even though I know that books are always better. I really enjoyed The Impersonator.