I was reading another book that was actually quite good, but in a fit of extreme procrastination and escapism, I decided I needed another romance novel. I saw Mrs. Julien's recommendation for some Lisa Kleypas novels. Since my library had a bunch of Kleypas novels available on Kindle, I took it as a sign to give When Strangers Marry (1992, 2002) a try. And I actually liked it much more than I was expecting.
Plot: Set in Louisiana in the 1800's, Lysette's evil stepfather is forcing her to marry a man she hates, Etienne Legesse. When she runs away from her betrothed, she runs into Max and his two sons. Max has his own unsatisfactory history with Etienne and decides to help Lysette, using her to anger Etienne. But then they end up liking each other, getting married, and falling in love. There is also some mystery over who killed Max's first wife and a couple of duels.
Things I liked: Well written. A sensual, equitable relationship between Max and Lysette: Max manages to find a nice balance where he's protective without being overbearing or controlling. Lysette is smart, independent, and a likable heroine.
Things that could have been better: The mystery of who killed Max's first wife was not much of a mystery. There was a lot of historical discussion with Max and the Governor about the fate of Louisiana, which didn't add much to the rest of the plot.
Things that weirded me out: It isn't clear, but Lysette is somewhere between 17 and 20 years old, and Max is 35. Now, 15 years isn't an Anna Nicole Smith- or Hugh Hefner-type age gap, but it's still significant--especially when you're very young. Now, Lysette is a strong enough character that the age difference wasn't apparent in their interactions. However, when Lysette runs away, she first meets Max's twin sons, who are about the same age and were interested in her once they found out she was a girl. Then the boys take her home and their father starts hitting on her. At first I thought Philippe (Max's son) might be Lysette's love interest, so when it turned out to be Max, it was creepy. It's like a high school kid bringing his girlfriend home to meet the family, just to have his father sleep with her.
Also, slavery. I understand that slavery was a way of life in the 1800's in the South. But I also know that these romances are more "historical" than historical. Usually the men have a much more modern, feminist perspective than the time period calls for, and it is uncomfortable for me to have a hero who is comfortable owning other people. Now, Max does mention that he feels bad when his brother beats one of the slaves and that he'd like to free them eventually, and this might have been enough for me at one time. However, I recently worked with a man from Louisiana who spent a lot of his time telling me how we'd be better off if the South had won the Civil War and how slavery wasn't that bad. His complete ignorance and denial of the suffering of millions pissed me off and made me hyper aware of the subject in other contexts. Sure, Max was going to get around to freeing his slaves eventually, but in the meantime what if Max died? What if his brother kept beating them/raping them? I couldn't gloss over the subject of slavery as easily as the book did.
But except for how young Lysette was and the whole slavery thing, I liked it.