I had planned for this year’s Cannonball Read to focus solely on the books that have been sitting on my shelves for years waiting to be read, but I’m breaking that vow already because I’m just so delighted with this book.
Lisa Kleypas has long been one of my favourite romance writers. Not all her books are perfect, and they’re fairly standard fare in terms of characters and plots, but they are reliably well written and engaging, with better period detail than 99% of historical romances. [Side note: I particularly love the descriptions of meals. In almost every Kleypas book, there is a graphic description of at least one sumptuous feast.] However, in the last few years, her books have been something of a letdown. First, there were the first-person contemporary romances which were okay but dull and I really dislike romances written in the first person. Then about four years ago, she published the first novel in the Ravenel series. I was excited that she was returning to historical fiction, but the first Ravenel book (Cold-Hearted Rake) was lacklustre at best, with a hero that I found dull, inconsistent characterisation, and unconvincing conflict between the hero and heroine. Plus, at least half the novel was devoted to setting up plots for the later books. It was disappointing. The subsequent books in the series were an improvement, but nothing to equal the heights of the Kleypas that I loved.
Hello Stranger may not scale the absolute highest heights of Kleypas’s oeuvre, but it is far and away the best Ravenel book, and I loved it. I loved the heroine, Dr Garrett Gibson, England’s only female doctor, who is based on a real historical figure and who is a stone cold badass. She’s also not one of those tiresome ‘strong women’ romance tropes, who insists on wearing men’s clothes and rejects all attempts to get her to wear something pretty. Not that there’s anything wrong with people wearing what they like, I just don’t enjoy belligerence portrayed as an admirable character trait. Garrett doesn’t give much thought to her appearance because she’s too busy giving medical attention to everyone who needs it, rich and poor, however when she needs to dress up for a formal event she doesn’t argue or protest, she graciously admits that fashion isn’t her thing and lets her friends help her. She also trains in self-defence so that she can protect herself when she does rounds in the rough neighbourhoods of London, but when the hero, Ethan Ransom, demonstrates how ill-equipped she is to handle dirty street fighting, she doesn’t get angry or lash out, she asks him to teach her to fight better. In short, she is intelligent, professional, and confident enough to acknowledge her weaknesses. She is freaking awesome.
And Ethan isn’t so bad himself. As an early-version secret agent of the MI-6 style, he’s rough around the edges and reluctant to get involved with Garrett because of the danger he could expose her to. He also has a tragic past, but again manages to avoid the tired tropes. He was abused by his father and lost his mother at a young age, but he isn’t broken by these events and we don’t have to wade through a lot of nonsense about how his tortured soul cannot love. Instead, he falls hard for Garrett and is perfectly prepared to acknowledge his feelings frankly and openly, though also with the caveat that they can’t be together because he’s involved in things that could endanger her life. Ethan is also a stealth Ravenel, being the natural son of an earl, and consequently the distant cousin of the first book’s hero, Devon Ravenel. This leads to a bit of family drama, but again manages to avoid the well-trodden paths that such plots generally tread.
In short, Hello Stranger covers old ground in a way that feels refreshing, with a hero and heroine who are equals in intelligence and status, an absorbing plot, and a healthy amount of lust. I loved it. Please let this be Lisa Kleypas back on track!