Lisa Kleypas’ Blue-Eyed Devil and Smooth Talking Stranger are two of my inexplicable comfort reads. They have their good parts and bad parts, but they are not stellar books. I didn’t particularly like either of them when I got them, but I got them both as ebooks, so I have read each of them multiple times, because there they are. I’m scrolling through my kindle and instead of the many long languishing books I haven’t read, I read these two. It probably says things about me that I’d rather not know. I am not reviewing the first novel in the series, Sugar Daddy, because that was too much of a slog and I’ve never had the urge to re-read it.
Both books are part of Kleypas’ contemporary romance series about the very rich Travis family of Houston. Amazon’s summary of them reads thusly:
MEET THE BLUE-EYED DEVIL
His name is Hardy Cates. He’s a self-made millionaire who comes from the wrong side of the tracks. He’s made enemies in the rough-and-tumble ride to the top of Houston’s oil industry. He’s got hot blood in his veins. And vengeance on his mind.
MEET THE HEIRESS
She’s Haven Travis. Despite her family’s money, she refuses to set out on the path they’ve chosen for her. But when Haven marries a man her family disapproves of, her life is set on a new and dangerous course. Two years later, Haven comes home, determined to guard her heart. And Hardy Cates, a family enemy, is the last person she needs darkening her door or setting her soul on fire.
WATCH THE SPARKS FLY. . . .
Smooth Talking Stranger
Billionaire playboy, and all-around ladies’ man, Jake Travis has a reputation as big as the
state of Texas. He drives too fast, lives too hard, and loves too many women to count.
In her advice column, and her love life, Ella Varner is always practical. So when she’s left holding her reckless sister’s baby, she decides to ask Jake Travis to take a paternity test.
Ella is instantly struck by Jake’s bold good looks and easy charm―but she’s not falling for his sweet talk. This big sexy tomcat needs to take responsibility for his actions, and Ella’s making him stick to his word. Now if she can only ignore the unspoken attraction that smolders between them…
These blurbs are terrible. Hardy does not have vengeance on his mind. He’s mostly pretty great up until some weird drama that Kleypas throws in near the end. And Jack isn’t a billionaire playboy who drives too fast and lives too hard. He’s dated around, he’s rich and from a wealthy family, but he’s as Mrs. Julien says “practically perfect in every way.” Hardy and Jack are pretty great contemporary romance heroes – adults and believably ready to settle down.
My feelings about these books remain mixed. I do like that Kleypas shows the negative impact that unhealthy people can have on our lives, and the benefits and limitations of therapy. I do like the relationships the romantic couples develop. I don’t like that some of the characters are walking diagnoses and not real characters. I don’t really like the first person narration. It is always a little off-putting to me, so why do I keep re-reading these books? Is it the mental health issues addressed? It is a subject near and dear to my heart.
In Blue-Eyed Devil, Kleypas takes on Narcissistic Personality Disorder. Our heroine, Haven Travis, marries and divorces an abusive narcissist, and then runs into another narcissist at work. On the positive side, Kleypas shows how a smart woman can become trapped in an abusive marriage, and then shows her getting therapy as part of her recovery. The downside is that both of the cautionary characters are stiff and textbooky. I think, and I have no basis for thinking this outside of my own conclusion leaping, that Kleypas wanted Blue-Eyed Devil to be educational so her readers would recognize a narcissist when one slapped them in the face. And maybe I like this book so much because of my own experience having relationships with narcissists. In my experience it’s easy to get drawn in and incredibly hard to get out, and Haven is untangled from both relationships in the course of one relatively short book. In my case, it took years for me to disentangle myself from one narcissist, and I couldn’t get away from the other until she died. Kleypas is very earnest in her lessons about appropriate boundaries and they are both wonderful and clunky. Haven is also able to apply her newly learned boundary skills in her new relationship and with her family. Haven and Hardy’s relationship is mostly well written, though their final obstacle is unnecessary, not well thought through and clumsily implemented.
The mental health challenges in Smooth Talking Stranger are tackled less directly. In this case, there are no official diagnoses bandied about, but I suspect we are still working with Narcissistic Personality Disorder. Ella is the child of a mother who refused to be a mother. Ella’s mother viewed her daughters as objects, burdens, and competition – all characteristics of a narcissist mother. Ella has mostly avoided her mother and younger sister for several years until her sister has a baby and then a nervous break down. Ella has had many years of therapy and is a reasonably functional adult, but still has trust and commitment issues as a result if her chaotic childhood. We don’t spend a lot of time with her mother, and her relationship with her mother never reaches a resolution, which I found true to life. Instead we see the difference between the sister who got away and got therapy and the sister who stayed and did not seek out therapy. Ella still has issues (which are sometimes communicated in a clunky manner), but she also has a self-awareness that her sister lacks. My main complaint with Ella is that she’s not so great at respecting her sister’s boundaries and rather judgmental. Ella is my least favorite of all the characters. I think that Kleypas wrote her character to communicate something in particular, so sometimes Ella does not feel fully fleshed out, which is weird and uncomfortable because she narrates the whole book.
A common trope in romance is the power of love to heal all. I appreciate that Kleypas sets up characters who are mostly grown ups who are taking responsibility for their own shit. Love doesn’t magically solve their problems. To be fair, an awful lot of their problems are solved by money, which is pretty realistic. Money does solve a lot of problems when it comes to getting good mental health care, rebuilding your life after a terrible marriage, and dealing with your sister’s surprise baby. With Hardy and Haven there is a little bit of the magical vagina issue, but mostly, both couples negotiate their issues and their relationships in an adult like manner. I don’t ever have the feeling that all of their emotional and psychological issues have disappeared, just that they are capable of working on them separately and together.