Well-born widows had more freedom than most women in late Victorian England, so Emily Ashton almost felt lucky when her husband, Vicount Phillip Ashton, died while on safari a few months after they married. As long as she followed the strict mourning rules of the era by withdrawing from society and wearing black, she (and not her husband or father) had control over her life and her property. 18 months after Philip's death, his best friend Colin Hargraves visits Emily and begins to tell her about Philip's interest in Greek and Roman antiquities. Her interest piqued, Emily begins to study ancient art and, eventually Greek - studies which lead her to wonder if her husband was involved in art forgery.
Emily barely knew Philip when he died, but (against the advice of her friend Cecile, a Parisian grand dame) she's fallen in love with him through reading his journals. This is how Alexander sets up the mystery, because if Emily didn't love Philip, she'd have no motivation to clear his name. With the help of her Bryn Mawr-educated friend Margaret, Emily discovers the extent of the forgery scheme and aided by Cecile and her society friends, brings the forger to justice.
I feel like I've left a lot out of this review, but I don't want to give away the delicately balanced plot. Alexander doesn't rely on coincidence, but she ties together the disparate threads of the plot in such a way that revealing almost any detail risks spoilers. Perhaps the only plot point I can safely reveal is Renoir's presence as part of Cecile's circle of friends. I'd seen an exhibit on Renoir's later period a few weeks before I read And Only to Deceive and was struck by how clearly Renoir loved women and everything about women. Alexander must have seen the same thing because she portrays the artist as a man who appreciates the beauty of all women, and passionately loves his wife. Reading the passages set in his studio felt like stepping into one of the paintings I'd seen at the PMA.