The first thought that struck my mind when starting When Strangers Marry was “old school romance.” Not surprisingly, When Strangers Marry is actually a revised version of Kleypas’ first book Only in Your Arms which was published ten years ago. I have never read the original, but one can suspect where certain changes have been made.
The novel opens with Lysette Kersaint being beaten by her stepfather for daring to defy him. Lysette is being forced to marry Etienne Sagasse, a man she finds loathsome. This is early 19th century New Orleans, though, and Creole women are merely the property of the men in their lives. Seeing no other way out of this desperate situation, Lysette flees into the bayou.
A few miserable days later, she is found by Justin and Phillipe Vallerand, the teenage sons of a wealthy plantation owner. They are described as being around the same age as the heroine. The twins bring Lysette home to their father, Maximilien Vallerand.
Max can hardly believe his luck. Many years ago, Etienne had an affair with Max’s wife Corrine and when she turned up dead, all suspicion fell on Max. Although he was not charged with the crime, Max’s reputation was forever ruined. Now with Etienne’s fiancee in his grasp, Max plans to return the favor, sullying Etienne’s honor and exacting revenge. He’ll do this by seducing Lysette and ruining her.
Before the plan can go into action, however, Lysette comes down with Yellow Fever and Max must nurse her back to health. During the process, he realizes he cares for Lysette and offers her marriage when she recovers.
Although Lysette’s age is never specifically mentioned, certain clues in the story lead the reader to believe she is 18 years old, 19 tops. Max is thirty-five. This alone was enough to start an ick factor for this reader. It’s made worse when Max feels instant lust for Lysette, a young woman whom the reader suspects is around the same age as his sons. It’s my suspicion that Lysette’s nebulous age was one of the things “reworked” from the original.
Something else that doesn’t quite fit together is Max. He starts off like a textbook tortured alpha hero. Max was betrayed by his first wife (he’ll never love again!), he has a bad reputation in society; he’s much older and domineering towards the innocent young virgin. Then, inexplicably, he becomes this sensitive guy. For example, Max originally intends to seduce Lysette, take her virginity and then set her up as a mistress. Then when they marry, he agrees not to make love to her until she’s ready. It’s quite the turnaround in just a couple weeks, and highly unbelievable.
Lysette is not a unlikable heroine but there were things about the way the character was developed that bothered me. Take for instance that she did not want to marry Etienne because he was so much older than she was and he seemed to only want her for his sexual pleasure. This is enough to make her take beatings and run into untold danger to avoid being married to him. Then she meets Max, who is the same age as Etienne. She knows of his plans to seduce and use her, yet she almost instantly falls in love with him and agrees to marry him apparently because he’s sexy. It didn’t make any sense.
There are several subplots, including the mystery surrounding the murder of Corrine and some political intrigues featuring Aaron Burr. They are interesting and well written, particularly the historical perspective of the effect the influx of Americans had on the Creole culture. It’s just too bad there wasn’t a more likable romance against this backdrop.
When Strangers Marry is not a bad read, but my satisfaction was very much diminished by a dislike of its old school style. Readers who are more tolerant of the young innocent heroine, older powerful man theme will probably enjoy this book more than I did.