Book Review

Smooth Talking Stranger by Lisa Kleypas


Title: Smooth Talking Stranger
Author: Lisa Kleypas
Publication Info: St. Martin's Press March 2009
ISBN: 0312351666
Genre: Contemporary Romance

Book CoverReading 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.

Comments are Closed

  1. 1
    MaryKate says:

    Perfect, perfect review, Sarah!

    I loved this book. Lisa’s last two contemporaries have both been winners for me, but this one reached a whole new level. Mostly because of Jack, who I just adored. One of my all time favorite tropes is the caregiving alpha hero. And Jack is that to the Nth degree. I just know that this is going to end up being one of my all time favorite comfort reads.

    It’s a book that I read and turned over to read again. I just wish Lisa wrote faster!

  2. 2
    Babs says:

    Now I can’t wait for my copy to arrive. Patience?! I have none. Grrrr.

  3. 3
    Katie says:

    Lisa Kleypas is my all time favourite. I think her contemporary work is great, even better than her historicals.  I did not love the wallflower series. Just not enough plot. But I would pay to read her shopping list. The girl is good.

  4. 4
    Jill S. says:

    I’ve had this one on pre-order FOREVER.  Can’t wait for it.

  5. 5
    Bonnie says:

    Can’t wait for this one, either.  Simply, can’t wait!  I hope it comes out on Kindle the same day as the paper book.

  6. 6
    Suze says:

    Really?  I enjoy Lisa Kleypas’ historicals, but her contemporaries just don’t do it for me.  Too much like Dallas, and all those other prime-time soaps from the 80’s.  Blech.

    I read the beginning of Sugar Daddy, because it was intriguing (the protective fellah from next door is a fave trope of mine), but it completely lost me by the end of the first chapter.

  7. 7
    Rose says:

    Suze, I can understand that some readers might not like the super-rich characters in Kleypas’s contemporary romances, but considering you lost interest in Sugar Daddy by the end of the first chapter, I’m kind of confused – in the first part of SD Liberty’s life is very far removed from anything you would have seen on a prime time soap (except maybe naming her sister Carrington). So how was that a problem there?

    I am really looking forward to Smooth Talking Stranger, I find Kleypas’s contemps work for me much more than her historicals.

  8. 8
    awasky says:

    I really enjoyed this book. I thought it was perfect—until the last 20 pages or so. Without being spoilery, I didn’t understand the need for a contrived catastrophe as the climax of the book, rather than just using the existing emotional drama. It felt kind of out of left field.

    But still, I loved the book. And I loved that Ella’s family doesn’t magically fix itself at the end. They’re still damaged, and she still has to deal with that, but it leaves her with a support network that will make her capable of doing so. (Also, doesn’t she mention that she’s had a lot of therapy?)

  9. 9
    Katie says:

    Does anyone remember Lisa’s first books? I read them when they first came out, even though I was maybe ten (thanks mum). I LOVE the second one with Mira and Alec, I think it was called Forever My Love. Maybe it was because I was just a baby, but I think it was one of the hottest books I have ever read. I still remember large chunks of the love scenes.  I am going to have to try to find a copy of that one.

  10. 10
    Suze says:

    Rose, the chapter lost me, but I skimmed through the rest, and I skimmed Blue Eyed Devil as well, because I really do like Kleypas’ writing.  After attempting to read, and then just skimming, both of her first two contemps, I came to the conclusion that I don’t like her contemporaries, just her historicals.

    This happens for me with a lot of authors, actually.  I like Sherrilyn Kenyon, but Kinley MacGregor does nothing for me.  I like some of Charlaine Harris’ series, but others don’t interest me at all.

    People and preferences.  Go figure.

  11. 11
    Elaine C. says:

    I am so looking forward to this contemporary Kleypas, she is one of the few contemp. writers that comes through for me EVERY time.  Linda Howard and Iris Johansen are two other fabulous contemporary authors! But the book I really want and can’t stand waiting for is Kleypas’ Tempted by Twilight. Sigh I want to read Harry and Poppy’s story Sooooo bad!

  12. 12
    Robin says:

    I LOVE THIS BOOK!!  IMO Kleypas has really found her stride as a writer, and I hope she keeps writing contemps, because I find her contemp voice very natural, the modernity she often shows in her historicals a perfect fit for her contemps.

    As for Ella’s emotional health, she was in therapy in the past, but certainly anyone in her position could use more. 

    ITA with your point about how the story favored emotional health over morality and virtue, and I LOVED that.  Dane was the more “virtuous” in terms of superficial markers, but Jack was definitely the “better” man for Ella, IMO.

    I wish Kleypas would find a way to resolve the complex emotional conflicts she sets up without resorting the the deus ex machina endings.  Please, please, pretty please.

    In terms of Ella’s general strength, what I want to argue about the book is that while Dane theoretically gives Ella much more freedom, she doesn’t have a lot of independence emotionally.  But while Jack wants to crowd her and take care of her problems, she has more emotional independence with him.  I like that, even if I’m not sure things were planned that way in terms of the novel’s conscious construction.  I also adored the fact that the baby isn’t merely a vehicle for Ella to become softer and more in touch with her natural womanhood.  He was an actual character whose vulnerability and neediness help Ella grow as her own person (not merely as a mother figure/substitute).

  13. 13
    Lisa Kleypas says:

    Dear Sarah,

    Thank you for the WONDERFUL and insightful review! (And thank you dear friends for the comments . . . I love getting feedback and I especially love it if the book worked for you!) And Sarah, the point of the book for me was exactly what you got from it . . . the real love story was between Ella and Luke. Without giving anything away, that is why that very last page ended with those couple of lines. And I definitely think that Ella should go on to have more therapy . . . there was a part where I think she recognized that she and Tara would have to figure out how to go through life with the “original wound” that will never heal. But I think the lessons people learn from painful experiences can actually make their lives much richer and better.

    You know, in a perfect world,  we would each have a sexy millionaire who would put the crib together . . . hee.


  14. 14
    Kaetrin says:

    Hi,  I just read a post about comfort reading at Dear Author and it contained some quotes from this book.  Can someone tell me if all 3 of Lisa’s contemporaries are written in the first person or is it just this one?  And, do they work that way?  (I’m a bit nervous about First Person POV – I like Kristan Higgins and Megan Hart and I enjoyed the 2 or 3 by Linda Howard but I generally prefer the 3rd person).

    Also, should I read Sugar Daddy first, then Blue-Eyed Devil then this one or doesn’t it matter?

  15. 15
    Robin says:

    Kaetrin:  yes, they are all in first person, and they worked well for me like that, but I’m someone who is not opposed to first person narration in Romance.  I think you can read the series in any order, as I read the books completely out of order.  However, they do kind of build on each other in terms of the secondary characters.  Haven, from Blue-Eyed Devil, is probably my favorite female protagonist, although I really like all of the women of the series.  Each book takes on the subject of abuse in some way, and all are concerned with themes of family, independence, and emotional healing and wholeness.

    Katie @ 9:27:  I also really liked Forever My Love; in fact, it’s one of my favorite Kleypas books.  Although her first books were much rougher in terms of the writing, I find them a bit richer in certain ways than some of the later books.  Although I have to say that I really admire the fact that Kleypas has continued to hone her writing, which has become so much more confident and fluid over the course of her career, IMO.

  16. 16
    Michele says:

    I love Lisa Kleypas!  Where Dreams Begin single-handedly cemented my adoration of the romance novel.  I stumbled across that book in a used book store, read it, loved it, and promptly bought the complete Kelypas collection online.  (A little nutty, I know, but wha’cha gonna do?)  And, if this is possible, I like her contemporaries even more.  I think Robin @ 10:38 expressed it perfectly when she said the modern bent of Kleypas’ historical characters is an excellent fit for her contemporary novels.  (I’m paraphrasing.)  For me Kleypas’ books definitely qualify as escapist, but never fluffy.  I find her stories well written, intelligent, and emotionally engaging.  I mean, this is the first time I’ve been tempted to wax gushy over an author featured on Smart Bitches.  So yeah, Kleypas is an auto-buy for me.  I can’t wait for Smooth Talking Stranger to arrive in the mail!

  17. 17
    Sourygna says:

    I love Lisa Kleypas as well, but I agree that her penchant for holy sh!t rich characters is getting tired. I know it’s one of the commandments for a contemporary, but I’d to see her write her awesome heroes, all their confidence and alpha greatness still intact, without the easy explanation of $$$$$$.

  18. 18
    Megan says:

    Oh, I love Lisa too! Immensely. Her Wallflowers series has been passed between my sister and I several times now—and I can’t get enough of them! I haven’t read any of her contemporaries yet, but I’m definitely planning on it. Thanks for the great review! :) Going on my wishlist!

  19. 19
    Laurie Jaques-Anderson says:

    Lisa is the romance author for whom I hold up all others, and I STILL refused to read her contemps because I absolutely despise 1st person POV. Until the other week.  And oh my god. Oh. My. God!  I was such a fool!  And now these days have been dragging by soooo slowly, and Google recognised long ago that all I’m going to type into the space is “Smooth Talking Stranger reviews”.  Thanks for such a good one Sarah!

    One of my favourite Kleypas heroes is actually Ben from one of her very early works… I think it’s the cowboy thing… undoing that one button from his denims, beckoning her forward… ahem – excuse me, where was I?  Oh that’s right – Jack! I KNEW I’d love Jack from the very first book, but I also have problems with the very rich angle sometimes (it makes me resentful!).  I try to temper this by rationalising that richness in romances really represents security and remembering how much I disliked a hero once who had absolutely not a cent and he came across as grabby and desperate. Ick.

  20. 20
    Lyssa says:

    Wonderful review. I have enjoyed all the books in this series. Like other responders, the opulent setting could have irritated. I think the focus Ella’s inner turmoil that slowly builds saves the book from just being another “Dallas” fantasy book. Instead the book examines the slow changes that people make when given different feedback by those around them. The thing that made Jack a great protagonist is not his Alpha male status: no, it’s the fact that he is a supportive and communicative partner. That is a ‘hero’ that does not need wealth to exist, only the inner strength to be an equal with any strong woman.

  21. 21
    DBN says:

    Apparently this is not available on the Kindle :(

  22. 22
    Hanna says:

    i do not understand,why her books are sooooo expensive- in the USA it costs 25 in HB, , she writes really good , but it just a romance and who can afford to pay so much for one book ??it would be better sell it in PB and ebooks

  23. 23
    Hope Tarr says:

    I loved Kleypas’s historicals but, if possible, the two contemps I’ve so far read are even better. I just finished BLUE-EYED DEVIL, so clearly I’m behind. I will be adding SMOOTH TALKING STRANGER to mt TBR pile—and yes it will be at the very top.

  24. 24
    Sassy says:

    I began reading Lisa Kleypas over 10 years ago. I will always love her historicals. But I have to admit, I love her contemporaries as well. I devoured Sugar Daddy, Blue Eyed Devil and Smooth Talking Stranger.

    STS really hit home because I’m expecting my second child and it made me soo emotional to even imagine giving up my baby. But I understand, some women just don’t bond with their kids ever.

    I love the Travis’ family. My only complaint is I also live in Houston, how come I never seen a guy like Gage or Jack.

    But then I probably only have eyes for my husband. And yeah he’s really good with a power tool. =)

  25. 25
    harley says:

    Lisa Kleypas’ books always work for me!I live in anticipation of her works.She is one of my favourite authors (Susan Elizabeth Phillips, Sherry Thomas and Mary Balogh are my other favourites) and I found her books to be really touching and different.I especially love Blue-Eyed Devil as both of the characters are really involved in the whole story.They maybe rich but they are both full of human flaws.Hardy with his insecurity and Haven with her tragic past (enough said :) ) and how they move past these pasts to come together beautifully. Smooth Talking Stranger is indeed a story more dedicated to Ella and Luke than Ella and Jack but I’m glad Ella loves Luke enough to overcome her own insecurities.The only thing I would love more is if Ella is pregnant (so is Haven actually) as I looooove happy endings with pregnancies or babies!Hehehe…So far, I have to say I love Lisa’s contemporaries and hope for more!^^

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