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Stranger in My Arms
by Lisa Kleypas
(Avon, $5.99, R) ISBN 0-380-78145-X
****
Stranger in My Arms is one of those rare books that makes me wish TRR gave plus and minus grades. On the one hand, it has an intriguing plot, an interesting hero, and Lisa Kleypas' signature love scenes. On the other hand, I had trouble with the denouement, with the pacing and I fear with the heroine.

The plot is one that is familiar to moviegoers (or students of 17th century French society, whichever comes first.) In the French film The Return of Martin Guerre (which is, to the best of my knowledge the only movie ever based on a historical monograph!) and in the American remake Sommersby, we have the tale of a man returning from war to claim the identity, the wife, the property and the position of a dead man. In each case, the faux husband turns out to be a much worthier man and more loving spouse than his predecessor. And, I fear, in both cases, the impostor comes to a bad end.

Kleypas has taken this plot and adapted it to the romance genre. Which means that (unlike one list friend) you don't need to read the end of the book first. It also means that the book is set in that most favorite of all eras, Regency England.

Larissa Crossland had watched her husband Hunter Cameron Crossland, Earl of Hawksworth, sail off to India three years earlier. When news came of his death in a shipwreck, Lara could feel some sadness but also much relief. She and Hunter had been mismatched and married life and intimacy had meant nothing to her but pain and disappointment. His successor, Lord Arthur, an uncle, and Arthur's nasty wife Janet have driven Lara from her home and relegated her to living in a gatekeeper's cottage. But Lara is far from unhappy. She has become usefully involved in good causes, including an orphanage which she supports as best she can. In short, she has found widowhood much more satisfying than marriage.

And then one day, the family lawyer announces that her husband may well be alive! Lara discounts the tale, but the lawyers seem convinced. Although leaner and darker complexioned, the man claiming to be Hunter Crossland certainly looks a great deal like the late earl. But more significantly, he knows things that only the earl could possibly know. And so, the returned Hunter is accepted by all, drives the loathsome Arthur and Janet from his doors, and begins the task of restoring the depleted family finances.

He also seems intent on reestablishing (or should I say establishing for the first time) a loving relationship with Lara. But Lara resists his advances. For her, the marriage bed had meant nothing but shame and pain. So she extorts from Hunter a promise that he will not force her to resume her marital duties. And Hunter, in turn, sets out to woo his wife to accepting the pleasures of love making.

Hunter is a suitably enigmatic hero. The reader is aware quite early on that he is indeed an impostor. But Kleypas provides in the course of the story explanations for both his uncanny resemblance to the late earl and his surprising knowledge of his predecessor's life. And, I suppose, his devotion to Lara makes sense, given his background.

Lara is for me at least a more problematic character. I just couldn't believe in her. My response is almost visceral rather than cerebral and therefore, not easily explained. I know that Kleypas was trying to create a woman who has made a worthwhile life for herself outside of marriage and who is loathe to abandon her newfound autonomy. I likewise know that her resistance to Hunter's advances, given her experience, makes sense. But her continuing and continuing resistance came to seem like a plot device rather than a real response to her feelings about the man Hunter had apparently become.

Finally, although I cannot say why (no spoiler space, you know), I was not completely satisfied with the ending. I found both Hunter's and Lara's behavior inexplicable, given their past actions and obvious feelings. And I doubt that the legal proceedings could have ended as Kleypas described.

So, I think you can see why I am ambivalent about my rating. Sometimes just writing the review crystallizes my evaluation of a book, but such is not the case here. I do recommend Stranger in My Arms, but not unreservedly. Interesting plot with some problems, strong hero, problematic heroine, a few historical faux pas OK, my final word: caveat emptor.

--Jean Mason


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