A conversation elsewhere got me thinking about one of my original autobuy romance authors, Lisa Kleypas. The Fated Mates podcast celebrates Derek Craven Day every February, and it’s been so long since I read Dreaming of You that I don’t remember why he was so great. And I’m not going to refresh my memory anytime soon, because it takes a lot to get me to read a historical romance these days. This year, the Kleypas conversation got into her contemporaries and I was reminded that I have a love/hate relationship with Jack Travis in Smooth Talking Stranger. I reviewed it a few years ago (I was clearly working through some issues, specifically my grandmother had just died and I have some big unresolved feelings about my maternal grandmother). As I was thinking about it, I remembered that I’ve always felt like Kleypas was trying to make a point with Dane, the ex-boyfriend, and maybe there’s a better message to be taken than the one she was trying to deliver.
This is less a review and more a musing (moderate rant? mild diatribe?) on a minor character.
Ella Varner is happily living in Austin with her boyfriend Dane trying to be a vegan to make him happy and planning on never getting married or having children. She is somehow able to afford half the rent in Austin while working as an advice columnist. Smooth Talking Stranger was published in 2009, so I guess it’s possible, but it certainly wouldn’t be in 2022. One night as Dane is making a vegan atrocity for dinner, Ella’s mother calls dropping the bomb that Ella’s younger sister had a baby and that Ella’s younger sister has abandoned said baby with her and if Ella doesn’t come get it she’s going to call social services. Dane says don’t go, and if you do go, don’t come back with the baby. There are a variety of shenanigans, and Ella is trying to find her sister, figure out who fathered the baby and should be 50% responsible financially, and figure out where she’s going to stay with the baby since she can’t stay with her mother and she can’t go back to her own house with the baby. The first name she hears as a potential father is Jack Travis, the middle son of a very wealthy Houston family, so naturally she demands a paternity test. He is immediately smitten and finds a place for Ella and the baby to stay, tracks down her sister, and is insistent about having a relationship.
Things to know about Dane:
- He owns some kind of environmental monitoring business,
- He is from somewhere that isn’t Texas,
- He is not an Alpha Male,
- He is a vegan and wants Ella to be a vegan,
- He doesn’t believe in marriage,
- He doesn’t want anything to do with children,
- He doesn’t want Ella to bring her abandoned infant nephew to their home for the three months she’s agreed to care for him because he’s pretty sure that Ella’s going to end up with a permanent baby and he’s not wrong,
- He isn’t interested in shaming Ella for being attracted to, or having feelings for Jack.
Dane isn’t wrong about Ella and her (lack of) boundaries with her family. And this whole review is to say – it’s ok that Dane didn’t want to upend his life for a baby. It’s also ok that Ella did. Dane gets a lot of flack in the book for not supporting Ella and not “manning up.” This is, of course, heteronormative, gender essentialist bullshit.
Dane may in fact be a cowardly asshole, I don’t know, it wasn’t his book, but the worst things about him are things that seem like author ignorance rather than a character trait. The biggest issue, really, is when Dane explains that they were in an open relationship, because one person can’t own another that way. I think Lisa Kleypas is trying to go for some sort of hippie polyamory thing, but doesn’t really understand how it works. It’s true that Dane could be a selfish jerk who never bothered to explain he wasn’t interested in being exclusive. But more likely, Lisa Kleypas couldn’t wrap her head around people being in a happy committed non-monogamous relationship. I don’t think that she really thinks women are interested in non-traditional relationships. She has some very firm ideas about women and men. Dane seems genuinely committed to having a respectful, non exclusive relationship, as opposed to being the “male feminist” who is really just keeping his options open.
If they were real people, I would have considered their relationship to have an expiration date because Dale wanted Ella to adopt his values and Ella was willing to do that, even though she did not like being a vegan. If she has to “cheat” on him with Whataburger, their days were numbered anyway. In the end, Dale decided being child free was more important than their relationship, and Ella fell in love with someone else.
I hope where ever he is now (in fictional Austin) that he is still happily childfree and has learned to communicate levels of commitment with his subsequent partners. Dale at least got to be a good guy ex, unlike Jack’s ex who is awful (because Ella is not like the other girls).
I felt more kindly towards Ella this time around. I really appreciated that she is decidedly agnostic (in Texas!) and the real bad guys, such as they are, are mega church pastors. I am assuming the pastor in the book is modeled on Joel Osteen, about whom I have multiple rants, ready to go.
Anyway, I still love and hate this book.
Also, this has partly been an exercise in getting thoughts out of my head so that I can finish the other two reviews I’ve been waffling over for days.