April 2009, Contemporary Romance (Texas)
St. Martin's, $24.95, 352 pages, Amazon ASIN 0312351666 Part of a series
I've liked every Lisa Kleypas book I've ever read, and even loved some of them, but somehow I don't manage to keep current with her books. Until Smooth Talking Stranger, I hadn't even tried one of her contemporaries. I suppose I'm saving them all for a rainy day (like Dreaming of You which I've never read...I know, I know!). Of course, I enjoyed this one as well, just as I suspected I would. Though it wasn't an out of the ballpark hit for me, I was a solidly enjoyable read.
Calling Ella Varner's childhood "difficult" would be an understatement. Her self-absorbed mother made life a living hell for Ella and her sister Tara - who had to deal with everything from neglect to attempted rape. Since reaching adulthood, Ella has distanced herself by living in Austin, away from her Houston roots - and maintaining carefully set boundaries. All that changes when she receives a phone call from her mother, letting her know that Tara has given birth and abandoned her newborn son. Ella is expected to rush home and pick up the pieces, which she does.
One of the "pieces" is determining baby Luke's parenthood. The one possible candidate Tara named is Houston investor/playboy Jack Travis. Ella's not easily intimidated, so she brazens her way into his office to demand a paternity test - and meets Jack. Jack is a force to be reckoned with. He's confident, swaggering, a little dictatorial, and gorgeous. He's basically sex on a stick. Ella is sure she isn't in his league. Anyone would call her passingly pretty, but she grew up being compared to Tara (who is drop-dead beautiful). Besides, Ella is already has a boyfriend back in Austin. Dane is completely different from Jack Travis; he makes no demands on her, and is steady and loving in a comfortable, safe way. But he also has no desire for children and cannot understand Ella's need to care for Luke.
Jack ends up taking care of Ella. He finds her a place to stay, helps her with Luke, and helps her out of her half-hearted veganism. Of course, their relationship turns romantic. But there are problems to overcome, even beyond the obvious boyfriend factor. The question of Luke's parenthood is complicated, and Ella finds herself bonding with Luke (even though she knows that her sister's absence is only temporary). Ella also has attachment problems because of her past, and she isn't really sure how to accept Jack's devotion.
For the first half of the book, I was sure I was reading a DIK. I didn't want to put it down. The reason can be summed up in a word: Jack. Jack is simply irresistible, and basically every woman's fantasy (whether she admits to it or not). Some of the things he says are completely unbelievable-bordering-on-chauvinistic, but you can't help loving him anyway.
Ella is the more complicated character, which is a little unusual for a romance. Clearly she needs to heal, and Jack helps her do it (though it takes a near-tragedy for her to truly appreciate him). The book is told in first-person narrative from Ella's point of view. I thought it suited the story perfectly and enabled the reader to see where Ella was coming from. But I'm also a pretty big fan of first person POV; I have trouble understanding why some readers avoid it like the plague.
Perhaps surprisingly, Ella's relationship with Dane is one of the most interesting parts of the book. While he is sort of the anti-Jack, he's not really a bad guy. The reader doesn't really feel sorry for him for losing out to Jack - mostly because of his complete lack of interest or support for Luke. But he also provides some necessary insights; there's some depth to him.
Where the book lost me a bit was on the back half. There was a lot of energy and sexual tension at the beginning, at then it just seemed to settle into a holding pattern with Ella and Jack having lots of sex and then hanging out with Jack's siblings (who starred in Kleypas's earlier contemporaries). Readers who have read the other books will probably welcome seeing old friends. But while I found them all completely likable, I mostly felt like their gatherings were proof of how rich they all were. It felt a little McNaught-ish to me.
That said, I enjoyed Smooth Talking Stranger as a whole, and found even Jack alone to be well worth the time. I plan on seeking out the earlier books as well (obscenely rich siblings notwithstanding).
-- Blythe Barnhill
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