This past Christmas, one of my very best gifts was Lisa Kleypas’s Blue-Eyed Devil. It’s a contemporary romance featuring a smart, strong heroine who’s a survivor of domestic violence and has major, major issues to deal with before she can have any kind of healthy romantic relationship – but who meets a guy she wants so badly, he might just be worth it. If only her family didn’t hate him…
The issues Haven’s dealing with feel very real, the emotions are SO intense, the pain and the growth are so believable, and oh, the romance that develops for her is just wonderful – so hot, yes, but also so perfectly deserved, on an emotional level: Haven and the hero, Hardy, are so right for each other and so good for each other, too.
There’s one particular scene when Haven finally drops her shields around Hardy, tells him everything she’s been hiding, and waits for him to run…and what happens next is SO emotionally powerful that when I finished reading that scene I went straight back and read it right through all over again, twice, before I could move on with the rest of the book. It was that amazing.
I LOVED that book.
It happens to be Book 2 in a family-linked trilogy (that can be happily read out of order), and I’d never read Books 1 or 3, which feature two of Haven’s brothers. After falling so hard for Blue-Eyed Devil, of course I had to find more. So I reserved Books 1 (Sugar Daddy) and 3 (Smooth Talking Stranger) from the library, I waited eagerly for them, they both arrived almost a month ago…
…and yet I never seemed to get around to reading them. Because the thing is, Blue-Eyed Devil is INTENSE. It’s not just a fluffy, fun escape read. There’s all this real stuff in there about abuse and fear and growth along with the joy of finding something real and strong and wonderful. The pain in the beginning only intensifies the joy at the end, but still – I was a little nervous about jumping into such an emotional minefield again.
Then I got the flu, I tried five different Harlequins – all light and fluffy and apparently perfect escape reading – and none of them stuck, because none of them felt real enough to distract me from how miserable I felt…
…and I finally picked up Smooth Talking Stranger.
Yup. It happened all over again – the emotional whirlpool, sucking me right down into the book – and I loved it.
Ella, the heroine of Smooth Talking Stranger, grew up in an emotionally abusive family, with a childhood so bad (under the direction of her manipulative mother and her mother’s horrific boyfriends) that her younger sister has had to blank out major sections from her memory just to get by. Ella, though, went through lots of therapy in college, she’s living in Austin with a very nice boyfriend, she’s totally reinvented herself to match him and every single one of his principles, including veganism, so she can be healthy and normal just like he is, and she thinks everything’s fine now…
…until she gets a phone call letting her know that her younger sister Tara has had a baby and left it on their mom’s doorstep.
Ella ends up in Houston (the city is a major character in these novels, much more than just a setting – it’s described so colorfully and vividly, it takes on a real presence) with a baby on her hands and no sister in sight. Her first goal is to track down the baby’s father, and her first prospect is Jack Travis, a wealthy, macho Houston businessman who is the polar opposite of her boyfriend. Jack is not, in fact, the father of her sister’s baby (it turns out he was never even one of her sister’s partners), but he falls hard for Ella. So he steps in to help her when her sister announces she won’t be back for three months and her boyfriend back in Austin refuses to let a baby into his life.
Here’s where my own biases as a reader clash hard against the concept of the novel: I’m vegetarian, and I’m married to a vegan. I’m also really sick of veganism being used as a literary synonym for “uptight” and as a mistake that ALWAYS gets abandoned by every real heroine by the end of a novel. (Plus, why do strong, caring and protective romance heroes always have to eat meat? Why?) I was honestly expecting to be really annoyed by that part of this novel.
However. All that being said…in this case, the subplot genuinely works. Veganism for Ella is something she never would have chosen for herself, and the fact that she became a vegan in the first place was pure protective coloration; she was afraid not to do whatever her officially-normal boyfriend said was right, after her horrific childhood. Over the course of the book, and partly because of Jack, she really blossoms into her own, no longer standing in any guy’s shadow. She might start eating meat like Jack, but more importantly, she also figures out that she can have her own distinct opinions and think differently than her romantic partner while still having a healthy relationship.
Ella and Jack are great together, fun and funny. My favorite thing about them as a couple is perfectly expressed in her realization, partway through the novel: “My God. I love talking to this man.” They have the most fun talking to each other – they challenge each other in all the best ways, and the fact that their relationship is all based around how much they genuinely adore talking to each other and bouncing off each other makes their chemistry fantastic.
For once in a romance, though, they aren’t the main relationship of the novel, or the reason I ended up sobbing at one crucial point. The main relationship, the real emotional heart of the novel, is between Ella and her nephew, whom she takes in during his first week of life, and whom she’s going to have to give back to her sister by the time he’s three months old.
That’s the most painful and perfectly-pitched love story in the book, as she goes through all the sleep-deprivation and despair of early parenthood, and all the overwhelming bonding and love, too, her entire life is turned around forever – and yet she knows that there’s a ticking time bomb in the background, because after all this, she’s going to have to give him back. It just reinforces all the cruel emotional lessons of her childhood – and yes, I sobbed and sobbed and sobbed.
Watching Ella fall in love despite herself, after a childhood that taught her never to lose control that way, was incredibly powerful. The two relationships she enters into both change her in important ways. And for all the glitzy glamor of the backdrop, as she rubs shoulders with (and feels completely out of place around) Houston high society, this is no light escape novel. The reality is that she’ll never really escape her childhood – and her mother is still a horrible presence in her life, one who will never turn into the loving figure she really needed. Love can lead to incredible pain and loss…
…but the ending of the book is just perfect, and it made me cry again.
Once I finished it, first I re-read Blue-Eyed Devil (loving it all over again) and then I re-read Smooth Talking Stranger, just a day after finishing it the first time.
Usually I think of romance novels as my light escape from reality. These two novels, though, are deeper than that. They’re emotionally cathartic. It can feel scary to dive into that kind of emotional commitment…but oh, did I love them both. They’re very highly recommended.
(But oh, would I love to see a vegetarian or vegan alpha-male hero one day! Please?)