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The Perfect Fraud


The Perfect Fraud

Claire is a third-generation psychic who spends her days giving tarot readings in Sedona, Arizona. Rena is a single mom to a little girl named Stephanie, who is sick with a mysterious stomach ailment that doctors can’t seem to cure. These two women have little in common, but their lives intersect with explosive results in Ellen LaCorte’s page-turning debut thriller, THE PERFECT FRAUD.

Though Claire has built a career providing “psychic guidance” to her clients, she has a major secret: she’s a complete fake. Her mother is a renowned medium and healer, and Claire herself showed signs at an early age of having a gift. But an ability to commune with the spirit world never materialized, leaving Claire to feel like “a photo taken that didn’t develop into the anticipated masterpiece.” Now nearly 30, she doesn’t know how to untangle herself from the lifelong lie.

Meanwhile, Rena has her own set of struggles. Her daughter’s illness has turned her life into an endless, hopeless series of doctor’s visits and hospital stays, which she chronicles in her “battle blog,” along with her tips for feeding your kid right (no gluten, plenty of probiotics, everything organic). Desperate to make her child better, she decides to travel from her home in New Jersey to Scottsdale so that Stephanie can see a doctor who specializes in children’s stomach issues. On the flight to Arizona, Rena meets Claire. And that’s when things get weird.

"THE PERFECT FRAUD is an intoxicating cocktail that skillfully blends supernatural elements with ripped-from-the-headlines plot points and everyday human drama."

LaCorte alternates between Rena and Claire’s points of view, starting out with long-ish chapters that give us a feel for each woman’s life. As the story progresses and the tension rises, the chapters get shorter --- some less than a page --- as LaCorte builds toward a terrifying climax. At first, though, the book doesn’t even read like a thriller, instead immersing us in Claire’s distant relationship with her mother and her romance with her sweet, supportive boyfriend Cal, who she pushes away in a moment of crisis, as well as Rena’s increasingly frantic attempts to help her daughter.

But small, subtle details suggest that something is not quite right with Rena. Her relationship with Stephanie’s doctors is hostile. She’s isolated herself from her ex-husband (who may not even be her daughter’s biological father). Increasingly, it seems that her trip to Arizona is less of a journey to help her child and more of a desperate attempt to escape from her life.

When Claire meets the “frowsy, meaty blonde” mom with a “mouth that won’t quit” and her frail daughter with a “a mask of resigned despair,” her dormant psychic abilities suddenly kick back to life. That sets her on a journey of her own as she struggles to come to terms with intrusive and eerily accurate visions that invade her daily life. It also sparks a reevaluation of her relationship with her own mother, which has been strained since the first of her father’s strokes many years earlier, and Cal, as she tentatively opens herself up to love.

Both Claire and Rena are caught up in epic lies of their own making that eventually catch up with them, but when confronted with the truth, each responds very differently. Claire chooses to face reality, while Rena turns away. Her blog entries, which complement some of her chapters, highlight the growing disconnect between her reality and the story she tells to outsiders. As Stephanie’s condition worsens, Rena’s voice becomes increasingly unhinged. At times, though, LaCorte’s portrait of Rena veers toward cruel caricature, especially when contrasted with Claire. While the reluctant psychic is conventionally beautiful --- a tall, slim blond with eyes like “fake emeralds” --- Rena is overweight with a bad dye job and a worse grasp of grammar. “I sleeped on the floor next to her bed,” she writes in one of her blog entries. In another, she notes that Steph has fallen into a “comma.”

THE PERFECT FRAUD is an intoxicating cocktail that skillfully blends supernatural elements with ripped-from-the-headlines plot points and everyday human drama. The more lurid aspects of the story are tempered by LaCorte’s depiction of the complex relationship between mothers and daughters. But it’s also a troubling thriller with a villain whose crimes are particularly horrifying. As it becomes clear where things are heading, some readers might recoil. But the story is worth seeing through to the end, as LaCorte brings everything to a conclusion that satisfies, even as it draws attention to the fact that justice is not always served.

Reviewed by Megan Elliott on June 21, 2019

The Perfect Fraud
by Ellen LaCorte