Like a lot of readers, I’ve been looking forward to reading Hello Stranger. I’ve read a number of Lisa Kleypas’ novels and some have long lingered in my mind because at her best, Kleypas writes vivid characters and tells great emotional stories. I deeply enjoyed parts of this novel, but I found it a more uneven read than others by this author. In the end, I would have to say that I loved the idea of this book most of all.
Its strong parts really did appeal to me and for some readers, may well carry the day. Ever since she appeared as a minor character in an earlier book in the series, I’ve liked Garrett Gibson, who is described as being the only female doctor in England. Normally a Victorian heroine named Garrett would make me roll my eyes, but I have to admit that I liked the obvious homage to Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, the first female doctor in England. Like the historical Dr. Anderson, Garrett Gibson has humble roots. In her case, Garrett is the daughter of a police constable.
The initial meeting between Garrett and her hero, Ethan Ransom, in this novel is hardly a ‘meet cute’. The two have met on prior occasions but cross paths initially during this story when Ethan intervenes one night as Garrett is walking home from her clinic and is attacked by a group of drunken soldiers. It eventually comes out that Ethan has been following Garrett and watching over her as she walks the streets of London going about her work. Please tell me I’m not the only one who felt a little suspicious of Ethan after that little revelation? I ended up liking him much better by book’s end but the whole ‘I’ve been keeping an eye on you’ thing seemed a tad creepy at first.
The very apparent mutual attraction between these two arises rather quickly in the wake of Garrett’s attack and Ethan’s rescue. Against his better judgment, Ethan can’t resist pushing himself ever further into Garrett’s life and Garrett finds him more likable than expected. It starts with self-defense lessons and just grows from there. In addition to their budding romance, Garrett also finds herself being drawn into Ethan’s political intrigues. Ethan, formerly of Scotland Yard, is now working for a somewhat shadowy figure in the British government. Without giving too much away, suffice it to say that lines between who is good and who isn’t get somewhat blurred, and given the spy vs. spy plotting that goes on throughout the book, both Ethan and Garrett find themselves drawn into danger more than once.
I’ll admit that following the finer details of the political intrigue pulled me out of the story from time to time. However, that part of the plot does work in that it helps to enhance the shifting power dynamic between Garrett and Ethan, and this evolving balance of power is one of the stronger points of the book. As the book opens, Garrett is armed with an education that few people of either gender attained in the 1870s and she also possesses a fair amount of confidence in her skills and ability to defend herself. The attack by the soldiers shows her that she is more vulnerable than she realizes and she has to accept that Ethan just might have some skills she doesn’t. However, Garrett does not sit back and simply allow herself to be rescued throughout the story. She and Ethan speak to one another as equals and as the plot moves along, their strengths complement one another. Each has a chance to be the rescuer at various points and I loved seeing these two coming together to work as a team. There’s something very sexy about a romance between two strong characters.
One other strength of this book is one that I’ve come to associate with Kleypas. She has a way of writing scenes that come alive because she captures not only the visual details of a scene but also the emotions these evoke. There is a pivotal scene at one point that takes place at a soirée in which get to see both the growing romance between Garrett and Ethan as well as get a very strong sense of the danger facing them. Kleypas does a great job of weaving both sets of feelings into the scene and as a reader, I could feel its significance as a turning point while I read.
So, where are the weak points? Well, even though I liked the idea of Garrett and Ethan, their romance sometimes feels a bit rushed. I could buy that these two would be attracted to one another, and I enjoyed seeing their story unfold outside of the usual aristocratic venues one sees in British historicals. However, I had a hard time navigating the leap from lust (or even lust combined with respect/friendship) to undying love with these two. I liked them and I liked seeing them together but I wanted to see them really get to know one another more, at least in the beginning.
The book also falters a bit in places because of the hero. While the author’s heroines have been all over the map in my opinion, Kleypas tends to write strong heroes. However, Ethan never entirely comes to life. I could see the ethical quandaries his job pose sfor him, but they lack a certain emotional depth and urgency. He certainly has secrets, but even knowing them, I found his motivations hard to understand and as a consequence, Ethan fell a tad flat. As I read, I kept getting the feeling that his story could have been fraught with angst but I never entirely felt it. This may perhaps be because some of the larger revelations about Ethan’s background are saved until fairly close to the end of the story.
In addition, Ethan’s backstory feels a touch haphazard. He does secret government work, but items such as the fact that Ethan was trained for his work in India felt more like an excuse to throw in titillating details about seduction lessons from the Kama Sutra rather than anything necessary or helpful to the plot. Why not train him in Ireland? Or continental Europe? Goodness knows there was no shortage of crazypants political intrigue going on in those corners of the world during the 19th century.
At its best moments, Hello Stranger provides readers with an interesting heroine and a passionate romance between intelligent, equally matched individuals. The window into non-aristocratic life in Victorian England proves refreshing as well. The story doesn’t always flow smoothly, and I did at times long for a more vivid hero but I’m still happy I read this romance. While my recommendation does come with some qualifications, this is still a book well worth reading, particularly if you like heroines who push at the boundaries for what was acceptable in their time.