Reading Smooth Talking Stranger made me appreciate even more Lisa Kleypas’ skill and talent in writing romances that feature familiar themes with memorable, unique characters. It was a funny and enjoyably friendly and utterly sudsy fantasy. And it looked without blinking at painful realities that women deal with, from new motherhood to surviving abusive parents to figuring out who you really are. Kleypas takes the funny, frothy elements of contemporary romance, and imbues them with meaning, with importance, with real and visceral feelings that make the ultimate reading experience satisfying. Those suds may look like bubbles, but they weigh fourteen tons. They don’t dissolve, either. They stay with you long after you thought they’d be gone.
Ella Varner is living in Austin with her boyfriend when she receives a call from her mother, Candy, a person who has abused and neglected her and her sister Tara. Tara has had a baby, and left the days-old baby with their mother with no intentions of returning. Candy insists Ella come save the day. Ella does so, and decides she has to find the baby’s father. The prime candidate: millionaire playboy Jack Travis.
On the surface, among the bubbles, we have a secret baby. And holy shit levels of wealth. And other tropes that are familiar – the women who are instantly friends bonding across big personal issues? Yup. The reappearance of previous characters who are now exceptionally happy in their ever after? Oh yes. And my personal favorite part, the ultimate fantasy of full-time child care, wealth, and ease for a single parent surprised by sudden parenthood. Jack takes care of Ella and baby Luke, and even though Ella is up at 2 and 4 and 6 am (oh, how I remember that) and reaches that point of so-tired-it-hurts, the protection of luxury and apartments with doormen and millionaires who want to help put the crib together dull that tired pain.
So there’s heaping piles of sudsy and fun, with wealth and boats and jets and nannies and Hawaiian sand. But working concurrently with those elements is Ella and Tara’s story. It’s painful, eloquent and full of some emotional messiness that is truly heartbreaking. Kleypas keeps it very very real even while her characters navigate a world of exceptional privilege and ease: there is no happy ending in every sense when dealing with selfish, manipulative, borderline personality individuals. They aren’t ever going to wake up and realize how terrible they’ve been. They will always be malignant. They will always be selfish. They will always, always do damage. And they will not ever recognize themselves. Some broken folks stay broken. That’s not typical of romance.
However, Ella’s history affects her differently than her sister’s and after giving birth, Tara runs away, leaving the baby with their mother, who is shitful. Deceitful, cruel, merciless and given to turns of fanciful revision of her own terrible history as a parent, Candy is not the person with whom a newborn infant should be left. Candy calls Ella, Ella comes to the rescue as per the usual pattern, and finds herself on the path to her happy ending.
In the end, she with the most emotional health achieves the happy ending. Instead of underscoring morality and nobility, and both protagonists are plenty noble, Kleypas emphasizes that surviving by recognizing health and wholeness and choosing to achieve them every moment is what makes Ella and Jack both deserving of their happily ever after. It’s tremendously satisfying.
Flaws? I wished I believed that Ella was as strong as she seemed at the end. When she’s with with her boyfriend, Dane, she eagerly embraces and parrots his opinions, even though he’s about as firm and unyieldingly strong as rainsoaked toast. Jack is a welcome contrast, and Ella learns to be herself instead of using her standard survival skill: adapting to the environment around her so she won’t cause trouble, be noticed, and therefore be harmed. But the degree of suffering Ella endured and recognizes in her childhood meant that, to me, I wanted to know that she was getting professional care of some sort, and not just being watched over by Jack and his many, many erect piles of money. Jack is a classic Texan male: alpha, confident, handy with tools, gorgeous, and even dances well. He isn’t nearly as flawed as Ella, but his alpha persona is offset by a deep caring streak that appears when he faces Ella and Luke, and realizes how much he can easily do to help them, even though they aren’t his responsibility. His actions may start out as chivalry, but they quickly turn into nobility and simple goodness. Ella learns she can depend on him, and on herself, but given her history, I wanted to know she was getting some therapy at some point.
But even with my doubts about Ella’s complete health, Jack and Luke and the ways in which they change Ella’s life make for some amazing reading. The “Smooth Talking Stranger” in the title isn’t Jack, in my opinion. It’s Luke, who at the age of a few days reaches into Ella and allows her to find the strength she didn’t know she had, and to create a whole and loving family for herself with people who love and care for her without limit, and collectively are each other’s happily ever after.