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CONVERSATIONAL REVIEW: Stranger by Megan Hart

Wherein Jennie and Janet weigh in on Megan Hart’s latest…

book review Jennie: I was very happy when I discovered Megan Hart’s Harlequin Spice books a couple of years ago – I read Dirty and Broken in short order, and liked them both a lot. I was less enamored of Tempted, but figured that not every book is going to work for me, even if the author is one I enjoy. Unfortunately, I had some major problems with Stranger, as well, and I think I’ve identified some aspects of Hart’s writing that I dislike.

Janet: Dirty is still my favorite of the Hart books I’ve read. I have not read Tempted yet, and I haven’t read anything before Dirty. I enjoyed the edgier aspects of Broken but had a lot of trouble with the ending, and the short, "Reason Enough," disappointed me with the way Elle seemed to have transformed into a baby-wanting Suburban wife so quickly after her marriage to Dan. I would place Stranger second after Dirty in my Hart hierarchy.

Jennie: Dirty seems to be a favorite with a lot of Hart’s fans, from what I can tell. I did appreciate it a lot when I read it because it was both different and well-written – a combination that is harder to find than you’d think.

The plot of Stranger: Grace has taken over her family business – a mortuary – from her father. She is working hard to grow the business, and doesn’t seem to have much time for a personal life. What she does have is a penchant for hiring male escorts for anonymous sex. Things get complicated when Grace mistakes a guy she encounters in a bar, Sam, for her "date", and sleeps with him.

There are several things in the summary above that will give the reader a clue that this is not the average romance. To add to the unorthodoxy, Grace does eventually meet up and pursue a relationship (for pay, mostly) with Jack, her missed date from the bar. While Stranger does not contain a typical love-triangle plot, I’m sure there are readers who will be put off by a heroine sleeping with more than one man for the better part of the book.

I want to applaud Hart for taking chances with her characters and plot. I wish the chances that she took worked better for me.

First of all, I will admit that I was somewhat put off by the heroine’s profession. On the one hand, I commend the author for choosing an unusual and perhaps misunderstood profession for her heroine. On the other hand, I’m pretty squeamish about death (I used to be even worse). Whenever Grace would describe working on a body, and then go on to her next task or action – drinking a soda or returning to her office to work – I had to mentally insert, "and I took off my gloves and scrubbed my hands and arms really well". I found it hard not to focus on the corpse aspect of the story.

Janet: LOL on the hand washing, Jennie! Now I’m just the opposite in the sense that I’m fascinated by certain death-related rituals, funeral home work included. I was a big fan of "Six Feet Under," and I had a few moments where I would think back to the series as I was reading Grace’s musings on the nature of life and death and grief, especially her insights into how her work was primarily for the benefit of the living people left behind, even more than the dead whom she prepared for the funerary process.

Jennie: It’s funny you mention "Six Feet Under", because I resisted watching for the first couple of seasons because I was so put off by the subject matter. I did end up getting into it around Season 3, at the urging of a friend, and eventually went back and watched all of the episodes. It was a great show (I think the ending was one of the best endings of a series, ever). But I think I liked it in spite of the funeral-home setting, not because of it.

Janet: I will admit, though, that I also found this aspect of the book a bit cliché – the heroine named Grace who is a mortician and has a commitment phobia because she doesn’t want to be in a position to face this kind of grief with a husband or child. And I was a little baffled by the fact that she didn’t seem to apply this same phobic reaction to her own parents and siblings, but then, she didn’t really have a choice in their existence, so that might be part of it. And still it managed to work for me, in large part because it was just so unusual to see a female protagonist in a profession like this, especially as a business owner and not just a mortician or one of those quirky make-up artists for the dead you sometimes see in women’s fiction or film.

Jennie: I did have a problem believing in the reasoning behind Grace’s fear of relationships because it was presented pretty superficially, in my opinion. It felt more like an afterthought or an excuse for Grace’s behavior rather than a real emotional problem. Because of this, it was harder for me not to be judgy about her choice to hire escorts, which honestly did feel kind of sleazy to me.

Grace seemed to have a healthy attitude about her work and about the reality of death, except when an excuse was needed to explain her fear of emotional intimacy. The persona she presented most of the time just did not jibe with someone who was so traumatized by the reality of death that she was unable to form healthy attachments.

I was also put off by the fact that her issue was never really resolved, except I guess by the Power of Twu Luv – which felt too trite for such a realistic book. I thought Grace actually had some pretty large psychological issues – issues that drove her to indulge in some fairly compulsive and unconventional behavior – that probably needed to be addressed with professional help.

Janet: Although Grace blames witnessing the grief of others in her father’s mortuary growing up, I really felt that the crux of her issues was her father and the difficult relationship they had. The way she sees his interest in the business after she takes it over as intrusive; the way he seems so critical of her; the way he seems disappointed in the fact that his son had no interest in the business so it’s now up to his daughter to run it; the way he seems pretty controlling, all of this, even though most of it is Grace’s perception of her father, struck me as very important in Grace’s commitment phobic feelings.

Late in the book she realizes that they are not so dissimilar:

"I’d worked with my dad often enough to know his style. . . . But watching him this time I seemed to see it all with fresh eyes. I saw myself in my dad, in subtle ways, like which straps on the gurney I buckled first or how I folded the body’s hand."

At this point in the story Grace is going through her own sense of grief over Sam’s abandonment of her, and I thought perhaps she was beginning to see that she was like him in other ways, although she never really gets there. But for me, as a reader, it was another clue that Grace is as controlling as her dad, even though she exhibits the characteristic differently. She’s hyper-organized, extremely conscientious about being available, structured, and wants things done her way. She has high expectations for those who work with her, even though she’s humane in her treatment of them. And then there’s the scene where her father apologizes to her for not being there more when she was a child, and I factored that in, too, getting the impression that Grace was simply not well-connected to her father, the first male role model in her life, and then the family business left her steeped in death, and did anyone make an effort to take the scariness out of that for her? What did you think when she tells Sam, "Because before you, I was so afraid of being unable to live without someone, I could never live with someone"? Did you just not believe her, or was it just not enough to explain what you saw as Grace’s issues?

Jennie: I felt that line was a little too glib, and symptomatic, again, of the way that Grace’s issues were dealt with.

Regarding Grace’s father-hmm. I’m a little torn now because your explanation makes a lot of sense. But I think it was either too subtle for me, or possibly you understand Hart’s characters better than she does. On the one hand, I want to encourage romantic authors to write with subtlety, complexity and realism. On the other hand, when it’s so subtle that the reader has to do a lot of the work to connect the dots, I think that may be expecting too much. But it’s possible that other readers picked up on your interpretation as well, and maybe it’s just me that didn’t quite get it.

I’m not sure what to think about Hart’s writing at this point. I liked Dirty, even though Elle got on my nerves (I gave it a B). Broken was my favorite of her books, an A-, and perhaps that was at least in part because the heroine had a solid external reason for her angst. I was really looking forward to Tempted, but it ended up only earning a C+ from me. Again, I found myself annoyed with the heroine, who seemed spoiled and selfish to me. I also found myself preferring the "other man" in that book, though I understood why the triangle was resolved the way it was.

Taken as a whole, Hart’s heroines have a complexity and a toughness I admire. Unfortunately, when I look at the as a whole, they seem to share some other traits: they are cold, self-centered, and a bit humorless.

I was musing on Hart’s heroines in connection to another contemporary author, Alisa Kwitney. Kwitney’s books also feature first-person heroines and neurotic characters. But
Kwitney imbues her characters with so much more charm than Hart does. Of course, Kwitney’s books are very different – much more humorous than Hart’s, and she has a tendency to include unwieldy suspense plots that never make much sense. But her books aren’t downbeat, and Hart’s often are, at least a little, to me. It’s great to see an author creates a complicated, difficult and unique heroine. But I also need her to be sympathetic, relatable or at least understandable. My grade for Stranger is a C.

Janet: I think I read Grace’s father the way I did because he’s just so imposing in the book, both on Grace and on the narrative itself — just walking in and trying to take over, intimidating Grace’s assistant, and generally disregarding anyone else’s feelings.   Now I felt his control issues were solved a bit too conveniently, too, but that’s a separate issue, I guess.

As I said above, I think Hart’s strength is creating these erotic Romances about women who have trouble loving in a committed, intimate way, and that she uses the sexual adventurousness of these women to create a context in which they can open up emotionally. I agree with you that Grace is not the warmest person, but I think she provides a sense of strength and stability for Sam, who is very emotionally open but not very structured, organized, or confident about his ability to succeed in any traditional way. So I see Sam and Grace as naturally drawn to one another because of that and good for each other emotionally. While Grace didn’t have the emotional poignancy of a heroine like Elle, at least not for me, she was more "normal," I think, or at least not as extreme in her emotional issues, which means she didn’t have to travel as far toward emotional connection with Sam.

I also liked that Sam doesn’t start to break down until he "wins" Grace, because I felt that the dreamer in him, the creative artist, was very well articulated in the way he pursued Grace – like the way an artist courts his muse, perhaps. And then to see him as the saboteur of the relationship seemed very logical to me, because his idealism – without the proper support structures and organization – was his downfall in his career, too. I totally agree with you that I would like to have seen more detail in the way his growth is accomplished, but I think some of it was that he learned about constancy and commitment and consistent work from Grace. Although that still doesn’t explain the way she takes him back so quickly at the end.

Jennie: That reminds me that I didn’t actually like Sam all that much. Again, maybe the issue is simply that he was a little too realistic for me to find him romantic. I didn’t mind him being portrayed as a laid-back artistic type, but Hart focused a little too much on the negative aspects of that persona for me to find Sam truly appealing. At times, the word "loser" came to mind, though I know that’s a bit harsh. I actually liked Jack better, though I’m not sure he would’ve made a believable committed mate for Grace.

Janet: Despite my issues with the resolution, though, the majority of the book worked well enough for me to earn a B. When I read it, I was so engaged that it kept me up late, late, late, as I felt the need to keep reading to the end.   With that and the unusual characters, triangulation, and edgy take on erotic Romance (despite what Hart might say about what she is and isn’t writing, I believe she is really writing erotic Romance), I liked Stranger.

This book can be purchased in trade paperback from Amazon or ebook format from the Sony Store and other etailers.

has been an avid if often frustrated romance reader for the past 15 years. In that time she's read a lot of good romances, a few great ones, and, unfortunately, a whole lot of dreck. Many of her favorite authors (Ivory, Kinsale, Gaffney, Williamson, Ibbotson) have moved onto other genres or produce new books only rarely, so she's had to expand her horizons a bit. Newer authors she enjoys include Julie Ann Long, Megan Hart and J.R. Ward, and she eagerly anticipates each new Sookie Stackhouse novel. Strong prose and characterization go a long way with her, though if they are combined with an unusual plot or setting, all the better. When she's not reading romance she can usually be found reading historical non-fiction.

19 Comments

  1. Chicklet
    Mar 12, 2009 @ 12:48:35

    To add to the unorthodoxy, Grace does eventually meet up and pursue a relationship (for pay, mostly) with Jack, her missed date from the bar.

    Wait, this isn’t the same Jack who appeared briefly in Dirty, is it? Because Dirty and Broken had characters in common, I assumed Stranger would continue the trend.

    Anyway, I haven’t read Tempted yet (I’m still on my Project TBR from last year), but I appreciate how Hart breaks generic conventions in her books, even if I don’t always relate to the characters. To me, Hart’s books have a realness and seriousness to them that a lot of other romances lack. Her characters have actual, real-world problems, not the “Oh noes, we’ve had a Horrible Misunderstanding!” ones I see elsewhere. Perhaps it’s because Hart takes the time to develop internal, emotional difficulties for her characters, not easily-manipulated external ones.

    In short, her characters can be pretty f–ked up, and their recoveries are not quick and simple. Hallelujah.

    All of which is to say, I’m looking forward to reading Tempted and Stranger, once I’ve finished decimating my TBR pile. *g*

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  2. Robin
    Mar 12, 2009 @ 14:54:27

    @Chicklet: I didn’t remember him from Dirty, but Jennie assures me it’s the same character. In fact, the night with Elle and Dan is mentioned in Stranger, which should have jogged my memory, but honestly, I had a totally different picture of the bartender in Dirty and Jack in Stranger. I need to go back and compare but haven’t had the time.

    I’m not convinced that Hart “breaks” genre conventions in her books as much as tweaks and adapts them. I know that some readers find her books very unconventional, but if you view the book in skeletal form, I think Stranger moves like a pretty traditional Romance, even though its characters are non-traditional and the erotic aspects very developed.

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  3. Janine
    Mar 12, 2009 @ 15:42:22

    Prior to this book, I enjoyed everything I read by Hart. Dirty is probably my favorite or hers (an A- for me). Broken was also excellent IMO, and another A-. I didn’t love Tempted but I still liked it — I gave it a B- in the conversational review I did with Jennie.

    And Robin, if you don’t think Hart breaks genre conventions, you need to read Tempted IMO. I would really love to hear your thoughts on it.

    Anyway, unlike Jennie and Jane, I had no difficulty empathizing with the narrator-heroines of the abovementioned books. In fact, I enjoyed the fact that Hart wasn’t trying too hard to make me like them, but instead, presenting them as they were, in a way that was true to human nature.

    But I did have some difficulty empathizing with and warming to Grace early on, and the funeral parlor work was off-putting to me as well. Between those two things, I ended up putting down Stranger, though before I started it, I was anticipating it so keenly that it was the very first book I purchased at the Sony store after I got my new Sony.

    Now your thoughts on Grace, Robin, make me want to pick it up again. Maybe if I keep in mind her jerkish father I could come to like her better.

    I recognized Jack from Dirty and I do want to know how his story continues. I also enjoyed the scene in which Dan comes to the funeral parlor, and wanted to see more of him and of Elle.

    As an aside, when I discovered that Jack was in this book as well, I wondered what would happen if, sometime in the future, Dan, Elle, Sam (Dan’s brother) and Grace went out to dinner together and ran into Jack. What a weird moment that would be, since three of them were involved with him. So for me, the interconnectedness of the characters from book to book both serves the stories and doesn’t.

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  4. Zippy
    Mar 12, 2009 @ 17:20:58

    I just finished reading this book 2 weeks ago so I found everyone’s analysis extremely interesting. I liked Sam very much but we didn’t get enough of him and the ending of the book was rushed, boom they’re back together and the book is over. Also, what was with that second to the last scene at the coffee shop/playground – I had to read it twice and I’m still confused about the reference to another woman.

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  5. Georgina
    Mar 12, 2009 @ 17:41:20

    Ooh, you make this sound so interesting. I love an author that gets you thinking.

    Megan Hart has been on my “I really should check her out” list for a while. It sounds as though Dirty is the book to read first, both for the interconnected characters and because it’s the best, so I’ll have to see if I can find it here in Australia.

    Janine, am I reading you correctly that Jack swings both ways?

    (Oops, just realised that Jack is not the hero here. Pity. You don’t see enough (i.e. any) bisexual heros.)

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  6. Janine
    Mar 12, 2009 @ 17:51:09

    Gerogina. I am not sure about Jack, but I think he might be straight. However, Alex, who plays a significant role in Tempted and who will be the hero of the book Hart is now writing, definitely swings both ways.

    SPOILER for Dirty re. Jack
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    In Dirty, Jack was in a threesome one night with Elle and Dan. But Elle was the focus of Jack and Dan’s attention in that scene.

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  7. Robin
    Mar 12, 2009 @ 17:52:36

    @Janine: As I said in the review, I loved the funeral home aspect, even while I found some of the philosophical stuff about death and life a bit facile. Had I disliked that aspect of the book, it probably would not have worked nearly as well for me, since so much of it is set there.

    MILD SPOILERS about Grace’s family:

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    HERE THEY COME:

    I felt that if you looked at Grace’s family, it was clear there were issues. The son was expected to take over the business, but he didn’t, and IIRC, he lives quite a bit away. Grace’s sister is always having Grace watch her kids, and for a while, Grace is sure she’s having an affair, and when we all find out what the sister has been doing, it is one more indication that these kids have issues. Plus her father’s on page behavior is very bullish, very imposing, and not particularly loving. While it wasn’t like Elle’s family on the dysfunction scale, it was enough to make me accept Grace’s fear of commitment and extreme need to be in control (both as an act of rebellion and as a similarity to her dad).

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  8. Robin
    Mar 12, 2009 @ 17:55:21

    @Zippy: refresh my memory, please.

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  9. Janine
    Mar 12, 2009 @ 18:00:55

    Thanks Robin. I am thinking I will pick up the book again and keep in mind everything you said about Grace’s family situation. I am anal about reading connected books in order, and think it likely that characters from this book will show up in future books, since that has been the pattern with Hart’s Spice books so far.

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  10. Georgina
    Mar 12, 2009 @ 18:36:22

    Janine, thanks for the clarification. Will definitely keep an eye out for Alex’s story, whee!

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  11. Jennie
    Mar 12, 2009 @ 19:31:57

    Anyway, I haven't read Tempted yet (I'm still on my Project TBR from last year), but I appreciate how Hart breaks generic conventions in her books, even if I don't always relate to the characters. To me, Hart's books have a realness and seriousness to them that a lot of other romances lack. Her characters have actual, real-world problems, not the “Oh noes, we've had a Horrible Misunderstanding!” ones I see elsewhere. Perhaps it's because Hart takes the time to develop internal, emotional difficulties for her characters, not easily-manipulated external ones.

    In short, her characters can be pretty f-ked up, and their recoveries are not quick and simple. Hallelujah.

    I have kind of a split attitude to realism. On the one hand, I really crave it; a book where the characters don’t feel real or come alive for me is probably not going to get better than B- from me, no matter how good it is in other respects. On the other hand, I will admit that I like a patina of romance over my romance reading. I like dark, but not necessarily gritty. And I like real-life problems (especially in contemporaries), but too real can feel unromantic to me.

    I like Janet’s explanation for the reasons behind Grace’s issues, but if that what was Hart was going for, I wish it had been a bit more supported by the text. I also wish there had been more of a resolution. I felt that Grace just kind of “got over” all of her issues because she decided she loved Sam, and that felt a bit shallow to me.

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  12. Robin
    Mar 12, 2009 @ 20:32:58

    I have kind of a split attitude to realism. On the one hand, I really crave it; a book where the characters don't feel real or come alive for me is probably not going to get better than B- from me, no matter how good it is in other respects. On the other hand, I will admit that I like a patina of romance over my romance reading. I like dark, but not necessarily gritty. And I like real-life problems (especially in contemporaries), but too real can feel unromantic to me.

    Jennie: My RTB column tomorrow is on the Romance/realism split, lol, so I’ve been giving the topic a little bit of thought. Ultimately, I think it comes down to how we each connect to the narrative, because some things that other readers find “too realistic” I really adore, but other things that some readers find really romantic read as very unromantic to me.

    I’m not sure I read Hart expecting a romantic feeling about the couple and their relationship, which may account for some of my reaction to this book.

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  13. Jennie
    Mar 12, 2009 @ 20:51:33

    Megan Hart has been on my “I really should check her out” list for a while. It sounds as though Dirty is the book to read first, both for the interconnected characters and because it's the best, so I'll have to see if I can find it here in Australia.

    FWIW, Hart’s books aren’t connected in the traditional way – her characters tend to have cameos in other books. It can be fun to spot them, but I don’t think their presence is large enough to necessitate reading in any particular order. Though as I mentioned, Dirty does seem to be a favorite among her readers, and I think gives a reader a pretty good idea of what Hart is about as a writer.

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  14. Jennie
    Mar 12, 2009 @ 21:02:33

    I'm not sure I read Hart expecting a romantic feeling about the couple and their relationship, which may account for some of my reaction to this book.

    I don’t really mean a romantic feeling about the couple – I have trouble expressing what exactly I’m looking for and what sometimes turns me off in my reading material. I used to call it “glamour”, but that suggests I just want to read about rich, beautiful people, and that’s not it, either. It’s more that I like a version of reality that is slightly smoother than real-reality. I don’t really like Westerns because I don’t want to read about people slopping the pigs, whatever is involved there. In contemporaries, I want reality (and expect a higher level of realism, if only because I’m more likely to catch things that feel false), but I don’t want the story to be so real that it feels dreary. I like that Hart deals with dysfunctional family relationships, but for me it’s a delicate balance between making it real and making it kind of depressing. I can’t really articulate why; I think it’s just that I prefer to have the reality in romances be a little heightened and intense – that feels romantic to me.

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  15. Selene
    Mar 13, 2009 @ 11:54:23

    Well, I’m a big fan of Hart’s Spice novels (I have tried some her backlist and those books felt pretty average to me), but this was my least favorite of the lot. Not because of the heroine–I liked her and felt that she was (mostly) realistically portrayed, with Hart’s usual attention to the details and complexities of internal conflict. I also didn’t dislike her job, which I actually thought was rather fascinating, knowing nothing of the funeral parlour business beforehand. Of course, I will happily admit I love realism in Romance. The grittier and darker, the better!

    Anyway, what I had more problems with was the structure of the novel. A huge portion of it is spent on developing the heroine’s relationship with Jack, even to the point that I was hoping the blurb had been misleading and he would turn at to be the hero. Well, that wasn’t the case, which resulted in really little time for the H&H’s relationship to grow. I definitely agree that this left the ending rushed and the conflicts not developed enough.

    Selene

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  16. lil
    Mar 13, 2009 @ 13:29:08

    I wasn’t convinced at the end of Stranger, that Grace and Sam had found a HEA. It seemed to me that Sam has some serious issues that he hasn’t even begun to address.

    But I still felt that the novel had a positive ending because Grace finally allowed herself to love someone. She’s stopped letting her fear keep her from having a relationship. So, though I doubt the longevity of the H/H’s relationship, I was left feeling that Grace would get a HEA. It just might not be with Sam.

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  17. Jinni
    Apr 28, 2009 @ 10:57:51

    I really liked this one the least of the Hart’s I’ve read so far, but I haven’t read Dirty -which now seems like the only one I should have read. Mmmmm.

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  18. Roselyn
    Aug 20, 2009 @ 02:54:45

    I can offficially say I’ve read all of MH’s erotic novels including the short stories. I enjoyed Stranger and couldn’t put it down until I finished it, like all her other books. I thought the funeral parlour was interesting as it’s definitely an occupation I have no knowledge about. I like Jared, there’s probably a story there too after Alex. It just occured to me now who Dan and Elle were even though throughout I knew I had read them in one of her other books, how did I forget! Jack I picked straight away, he took out the ring from its special place! I liked Jack and love the way MH puts in detail which extends into the other books ie. Jack was paid to have sex with Dan and Elle, wow. I was hoping that Grace would bring up the girl she saw him with at the coffee shop/play ground near the end, it hurt just reading about it. He didn’t contact her when he arrived back in town and he was with someone else. Was she a new pick up? Hopefully we get to find out more about what happens with Grace and Sam in a later book.

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  19. April
    Dec 10, 2009 @ 06:19:22

    Jennie’s comment:

    I did have a problem believing in the reasoning behind Grace's fear of relationships because it was presented pretty superficially, in my opinion. It felt more like an afterthought or an excuse for Grace's behavior rather than a real emotional problem. Because of this, it was harder for me not to be judgy about her choice to hire escorts, which honestly did feel kind of sleazy to me.

    This sums up why this is the first Megan Hart book I’ve read, and not liked. I LUUUUVED Broken. I loved Dirty. And I really liked (though didn’t love) Tempted.

    Stranger I had a hard time relating too. I didn’t really enjoy reading it. The realism was wonderful, as usual. But the conflict was not relatable IMO.

    Now, on to Deeper…

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