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REVIEW: Smooth Talking Stranger by Lisa Kleypas

Dear Ms. Kleypas:cover4
Sometimes I think I’m the only one who didn’t love your first two contemporary romances.I liked Liberty and Hardy, but I became so attached to them that certain things like Hardy’s uneven characterization and Liberty’s choice in men left me dissatisfied. Smooth Talking Stranger was a chance to start anew with two new protagonists.

Ella Varner is a survivor. She was raised by a psychologically abusive woman who possessed not a single ounce of motherly instinct. She did her best to protect herself and her sister Tara, but both were left with emotional scars. After years of therapy, Ella has managed to achieve a tenuous bit of happiness: she’s got a successful job as an advice columnist, a nice place to live in Austin, a great boyfriend, and friends aplenty.

Her life gets shaken up a bit when she receives a phone call one day. Long story short: her sister had a baby, didn’t want to take care of the baby, won’t tell anyone the baby’s father’s name, left baby with the emotionally damaging grandmother, and grandmother refuses to take care of baby. Ella doesn’t exactly want to get involved- she knows little about babies. Plus, her boyfriend runs at the first hint of responsibility so she’s got no help there. However, Ella decides to take Luke for a few days- just until she can track Tara down, and solve the mystery of the baby’s paternity. When Ella discovers that rich playboy Jack Travis may be the dad, she travels to Houston to confront him.

Ella credits her boyfriend Dane with helping her heal from her mother’s psychological and emotional abuse. And while that’s true to some extent, I also think her relationship with Dane was a crutch. Dane was the safe boyfriend. Her heart wasn’t at risk because her heart wasn’t really involved. She lived with him for years, mirroring his causes and interests and beliefs as if they were her own. She became the person that Dane wanted her to be.

With Jack, Ella’s heart is most definitely involved. She knows Jack isn’t going to be the safe boyfriend she’s used to.But unlike Dane, Jack doesn’t want to fit her into some mold.He wants to know the what and the why and the how. He encourages her to become her own person, questioning the beliefs she borrowed from Dane, not allowing her to take herself too seriously, and standing by her side throughout it all.

Jack is an interesting mix. He can be charming, but intense; old fashioned and modern; laid back, but possessive. Many of his scenes were read with a big smile on my face. However, I’ll admit that his knuckle-dragging scenes were some of my favorites.

“But he’s my-’” I stopped and stared at him in disbelief. “What is this? Jack, I live with him.”

“Not anymore. You live here. And-’” A short, gouging pause. “I don’t want you to have sex with him.”

At first I was more bewildered than angry. Jack seemed to have reverted to knuckle-dragging mode, which I had never seen before, certainly not with Dane. That Jack felt possessive, that he wanted a say in when I had sex or whom I had it with, was no less than astonishing. “You don’t get to be part of that decision,” I said.

“I’m not going to stand by while he takes what’s mine.”

Jack’s voice was soft, but it contained a savage note that caused all the hairs on my body to rise. “I’m not playing games. I’m trying to tell you how I feel.

And what about Luke? After all, the premise of the book does center on him. Actually, the scenes with Luke were some of my favorite parts of this story. You can’t help feeling bad for the little guy. His mom doesn’t have any motherly sort of feelings for him- doesn’t even want him, his grandmother would rather give him over to Social Services than take care of him for more than a day, and his dad is some mysterious, responsibility shirking rat. Luckily, he’s got a pretty darn good aunt- an aunt who grows to love him as her own even knowing that their time together is temporary and will come to an end very soon.

Tiptoeing to the side of the crib, I peeked in, expecting to see the baby sleeping. But he was staring up at me in that somber way of his.

“Aren’t you asleep yet, Luke?” I asked softly.

The second he saw me, he moved and kicked, and his mouth curled.

His first smile.

It startled me, that spontaneous reaction to seeing me. And I felt a lovely ache that went right down to my soul, and I forgot everything except that moment. I had earned that smile. I wanted to earn a million more from him.

Ella’s relationship with Luke was very sweet. With Luke, Ella has the opportunity to be the parent that she herself never had. She can ensure that he receives all the love and attention that was missing from her own childhood. Her love for Luke allows her to take a large step in healing from the wounds of neglect and jealousy and humiliation inflicted on her by her own mother. And in caring for Luke, she herself finds a happiness that she never truly had before.

In the end, I didn’t entirely believe that Ella was finished healing. She spent her childhood being told by her mother, among other things, that she was inadequate. So what does she do? She enters into a relationship with Dane and allows him to dictate her beliefs, likes and dislikes. And while her relationships with Jack and Luke have begun the healing process, I’m still convinced that there’s more she needs to work out. There are several scenes towards the end which also point toward this conclusion. These aren’t complaints. I found Ella a very interesting character, and I think it’s realistic that she wouldn’t just be perfectly healed and ready to have her HEA without having to worry about any lingering damage from her crappy childhood.

I was very satisfied with Smooth Talking Stranger.It wasn’t necessarily ground breaking, but it was a very enjoyable and surprisingly poignant contemporary romance.
B+
:) Joonigrrl/Leslie

Borders is offering 30% off this hardcover in conjunction with our Save the Contemporary Campaign.

Leslie S

can usually be found hunched over her ebook reader or lurking in the romance and sci-fi/fantasy sections of her local bookstores. She discovered her love of fantasy at a young age, reading everything from Piers Anthony to Robert Aspirin and C.S. Lewis. At the age of 12, she picked up a little book called The Thorn Birds, and after crying for five days straight, decided that she liked the romantic elements, but needed a happier ending. Her first tentative visits to the romance section brought her to such favorites as Linda Howard and Judith McNaught where her love of the romance book was born. She then turned to Brenda Joyce, Lisa Kleypas, J.D. Robb, Anne Stuart, and as the years passed, many more. She currently prefers paranormal romance, urban fantasy, traditional fantasy, historical and the occasional YA.

19 Comments

  1. Robin
    Mar 30, 2009 @ 12:57:17

    Oh, I loved this book! I thought Dane was dealt with a little too conveniently (and I didn’t buy the last conversation they have) and Ella’s emotional growth too fast-tracked, but I still loved it.

    It was interesting to me that Dane theoretically gives Ella more freedom, yet she felt more restricted with him, while Jack gives her less space, and yet she feels freer with him. And I liked that Luke was a real character and not just a prop to heighten the cuteness or feminize Ella. You can really see her love for him grow, and that was very touching, IMO. I also liked that Tara wasn’t demonized and that some of her insights into Ella’s character were valid (that Ella is controlling in her own way).

    One of the themes I really liked in this book — and I wish it were dealt with more in contemp Romance — is that of control/care. At what point does a person’s caring become control, and how much control is necessary for those one cares for. SMS was always testing that line, which is one of the things that kept me engaged, despite some of the more cliched elements.

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  2. Tabitha
    Mar 30, 2009 @ 13:46:59

    I want to read this book!…but I don’t want to buy it in HB format because I have Sugar Daddy in PB and planning on buying Blue Eyed Devil in PB too. Could someone tell me how or where I can go to check when the PB version would be released? Although I’m not sure I can restrain myself from buying this book in HB format…

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  3. jmc
    Mar 30, 2009 @ 17:37:34

    Sometimes I think I'm the only one who didn't love your first two contemporary romances.I liked Liberty and Hardy, but I became so attached to them that certain things like Hardy's uneven characterization and Liberty's choice in men left me dissatisfied.

    You aren’t alone. The villanization of Hardy at the end of Sugar Daddy left a rather sour taste in my mouth, and I was not won over by his redemption (if that’s what it was supposed to be) in BED.

    I’ve been on the fence about whether or not I would read STS. I’m not a huge fan of secret babies, or of plots that use substitute parenting as a way of bringing the hero and heroine together; add to that the not very flattering (IMO) bits of Jack seen in the earlier books, and this book just wasn’t worth the hard cover price. After reading your review, I’m interested enough to see if a copy will be available at the library.

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  4. Jennie
    Mar 30, 2009 @ 18:24:11

    I really enjoyed this one as well. I only read Sugar Daddy, not Hardy’s book. I thought Sugar Daddy was okay, but I really liked this one much better. It was the quintessential readable, enjoyable contemporary. I can’t remember and don’t have access to my book log at the moment, but I think I gave it a B+ as well.

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  5. Robin
    Mar 30, 2009 @ 19:21:01

    @jmc: Hardy’s character arc was victim of the St. Vincent syndrome, I think — secondary character who must be made evil to propel correct pairing then must be rapidly redeemed for his own heroic turn. That and the dei ex machinae endings are the biggest weaknesses in Kleypas’s books, IMO.

    re. the baby, I am on record as not being a big fan of babies in Romance, but it really worked for me here. I might even have shed a tear or two at certain strategically positioned moments in the text. Although I think it’s a measure of the trust I have in Kleypas as an author that I let her get away with things I might not otherwise. But I feel that she tries her to give her characters a certain dignity that comes from healing deep emotional wounds, not merely suffering for the sake of the cathartic HEA, so it more often than not works for me. Plus, I really, really like her contemporary voice, and feel she has finally come into her own as a writer, so that persuaded me to buy into the fantasy even more easily in STS than in some of her historicals. I don’t know why, but I feel more emotional resonance with her contemps.

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  6. Robin
    Mar 30, 2009 @ 19:27:22

    @Jennie: I think Haven is my favorite of the three women, and even though some have criticized Kleypas’s treatment of domestic violence in BED (the first time I saw this acronym in jmc’s comment, I did a double take, lol), I think she did a pretty good job as Romance treatments of DV go. If you discount the way Kleypas had to manipulate Hardy’s character to play the anti-hero in SD, I really enjoyed the way she develops his relationship with Haven. BED added much more depth to that scene in STS where Haven and Hardy are whispering in the kitchen during the white sangria scene.

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  7. Bonnie
    Mar 30, 2009 @ 19:43:26

    Can’t wait for this one. And if it’s not available on Kindle tomorrow I may just have to go postal.

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  8. Jennie
    Mar 30, 2009 @ 22:34:43

    Thanks for the info, Robin. I probably should check BED (ha!) out at some point. I do like what I’ve seen of Haven.

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  9. Marg
    Mar 31, 2009 @ 03:40:20

    I am looking forward to reading this one! Here’s hoping it comes into the library quickly.

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  10. Kate K
    Mar 31, 2009 @ 17:40:21

    You know, I have to say I found myself somewhat disappointed with STS. This may have been because I loved BED and thought the writing was stronger there. Also, I had a hard time connecting with Ella… I liked the baby aspect, but the emotional conflicts just didn’t feel as real (or, eventually, as resolved) as in BED. Maybe I need to reread it, but overall I just didn’t love it like I’d hoped.

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  11. Zippy
    Apr 01, 2009 @ 20:29:33

    Dear Ms. Kleypas,
    Based on the great review here at Dear Author I motored to my nearest B&N bookstore today to buy your latest, ‘Smooth Talking Stranger’. There, I discovered it’ll set me back $24.95 – for hardback!! Whoa, who talked you into that? Speaking as someone who reads alot of books (including ebooks) there’s no way I’m paying $24.95 (list price!) for a one night’s read. Nu-uh. Especially not for an author I haven’t read before. May I suggest publishing this book in paperback or as an ebook instead would increase your sales. I guess I’ll have to wait until you do.
    Sincerely yours,
    Zippy

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  13. Mary W.
    Apr 14, 2009 @ 21:00:26

    I loved the novel! Lol, Ms. Kleypas, you rock! I loved Jack and Ella’s relationship was amazing. I could practically FEEL the chemistry between them, even though Ella tries to resist him, you just can’t resist a man like Jack! I also love Luke. His “fluffy black hair” and his “soft feet” made me just see him in my mind. I loved the book and this is definetely my favorite Kleypas contemporary :)

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  14. shree
    Apr 30, 2009 @ 15:32:23

    I liked this one. I read or rather tried to read Sugar Daddy but did not like it but I liked Hardy in BED. I love Lisa Kleypas to enjoy a contemprory romance.

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