CONVERSATIONAL REVIEW: Stranger by Megan Hart
Wherein Jennie and Janet weigh in on Megan Hart’s latest…
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.