Lisa Kleypas is well known for her light regency romances with smart heroines and breezy prose. But she didn't start out that way. Once you start hitting her back list and reading the books that were published, say, in 1993 or earlier, you get into some weird sh*t.
STRANGER IN MY ARMS was originally published in 1988, according to Goodreads, which makes it the earliest Lisa Kleypas book I have read to date. It's about a noble widow named Lara whose life is upended when her late husband, Hunter, the Earl of Hawksworth, presumed dead on a journey to India, returns alive and well and ready to resume his position. This means kicking out his wretched relations, Arthur and Janet, and resuming marital relations with his beautiful wife - or so he thinks.
Guys, STRANGER IN MY ARMS features one of the most unlikable, selfish, sanctimonious, hypocritical heroines I have ever had the displeasure of encountering in fiction. Even though I'm rounding up this book to 1.5 stars, please, please consider this review an honorary 1-star review because I definitely considered bestowing that honor upon it for the sh*t I was forced to endure.
Let's talk about Lara. She's disappointed when she finds out her husband isn't dead. Which is kind of jerkish, but okay, her husband wasn't a nice man, so that's understandable. When she finds out that he has undergone a personality transplant in his absence and actually become a pretty decent human being, Lara still treats him like dirt. She adopts an orphan without telling him, expecting him to accept the child's presence and then acting surprised (and not grateful) when he does. She refuses to sleep with him, which, again, is her right. But she also taunts him about it, ordering her gowns cut an extra two inches lower with the intent of torturing him, enters into sexual bargains with him (for the orphans, again) and then speculates on how to welsh on the deal (this is the term that the book uses, so please excuse the potentially pejorative phrasing). When she realizes he's not the man to force a woman into having sex, she is amused by that and tries to figure out whether she can use his honor to renege on their sex bargain while still getting what she wants. When he tells her that she's the only woman he wants, she writes a letter to his ex-mistress, inviting her to their charity ball, causing a scene, embarrassing him in front of all his peers, and then acts surprised when he's angry.
But let me tell you about the cherry that is the b*tch sundae special that is Lara.
Kleypas seems fascinated by doppelgangers and mistaken identity. In a twist that mimics the twist in ONLY WITH YOUR LOVE, it turns out that "Hunter" is actually the bastard half-brother of the Hunter that Lara married. We never find out "Hunter's" real name, so I'll just put his name in quotes when I'm talking about her impostor husband.
Anyway, throughout the book, it's hinted pretty heavily that the man who returned isn't the one who left. Lara suspects but doesn't really believe it, until a stranger - a man she doesn't even know that well - tells her his real identity: that he's a mercenary he knew in India who saved his life. At this point, Lara doesn't know that "Hunter" is her husband's half-brother, she just automatically decides - at the word of this perfect stranger - that he must be telling the truth. Her husband is an impostor.
So what does she do?
Rat him out to those horrid in-laws from the beginning of the book who basically locked her away in the servant's quarters and verbally abused her at every turn. I'm not kidding. This is Lara's immediate course of action. Does she talk to "Hunter" about this? Nope. She totally goes behind his back, and when she finds out that he's probably going to be executed, she's all, "Oh well, it's the right thing!"
B*TCH. DID YOU COME FROM THE KELLOGG'S FACTORY? BECAUSE YOU CANNOT POSSIBLY BE CEREAL. WHY THE HELL WOULD YOU THINK THAT WAS THE RIGHT THING?
What makes this even more disgusting is that there's a side-plot with Lara's sister Rachel, who is in an abusive relationship. Lara knows that her sister's husband is hitting her but does nothing. She doesn't like it, but she does nothing. She basically forces "Hunter" to go rescue Rachel after she "falls down the stairs." When it turns out that she had a miscarriage, "Hunter" sends for the doctor, lets Rachel stay in his house, and when the abusive husband (who used to be his best friend) shows up to reclaim her, "Hunter" protects her and sends him away. What does Lara do? Hide behind "Hunter" while tossing off insults and provoking the abusive husband. This results in a physical altercation that makes Lara attempt to run, fall on her ass, and watch as her husband throws the abuser out the door.
So after being a gentleman, putting up with all her sh*t, allowing her to adopt an orphan and raise it like her own child, rescuing her sister, rescuing her, and choosing his ungrateful wife over a friendship that allegedly lasted years, what does Lara do? I'll remind you.
SHE CONDEMNS HIM TO DEATH.
Obviously she changes her mind last minute and decides he doesn't deserve to die (ya think?), mostly because she's pregnant with his child (you b*tch), and mostly because she's afraid her sister will be sent down to her abuser because her horrid in-laws think he's the bee's knees. Oh, and because she loves him. Maybe. Can you see why this b*tch drove me bonkers?
"Hunter" is the only reason this book gets that extra half-star that rounds this book up to the two stars that I don't think it deserves. "Hunter" is one of the better romantic leads I've encountered in a Lisa Kleypas book, and he didn't deserve the hot mess that was Lara by a long shot. I was so frustrated, because if this book had a better heroine, I really think I would have loved the book because it has so many tropes that I enjoy: spouse-back-from-the-dead, enemies-turned-to-lovers, second-chance-romance, and, of course, sexy bargaining. And Lara ruined it all with her horribleness.
Yeah, I'm peeved.
1.5 out of 5 stars