I'm a big Lisa Kleypas fan. She's one of my favorite authors, and The Devil in Winter, one of her Wallflowers books, is one of my favorite historical romance books in general. She has a very extensive back catalog that I haven't read a ton of, and when I saw that When Strangers Marry is actually the first book she wrote for Avon, published way back in 1992. In 1992 I was still a couple of years away from being able to read at all, and probably a decade and a half from having an appreciation for historical romance novels! Kleypas has written a lot since then, and is still going strong, so I thought this would be a fun one to read and see how her style has changed over the years.
Let me put it this way: this book is one of Kleypas' first, and it was published in 1992, and it shows. This was a book that I ended up skimming a lot of because the writing just wasn't engaging. I ended up putting it down for large chunks of time because I was--gasp!--bored. The story is about Lysette, a young woman from France who is engaged to a man in New Orleans who she doesn't want to marry. She runs away to avoid the marriage and gets lost in the bayou. Two boys, Justin and Philippe, find her and bring her to their father, Max, who has a grudge against Lysette's fiance. To get back at the fiance, Max decides to compromise Lysette and steal her for himself. The two like each other well enough and there you have it.
That's like the first third of the book.
The rest of the book is filled up with sex (and not particularly engaging sex; I Kleypas' writing has really evolved since this book came out in all areas, but particularly in the "steamy scenes" area), a flimsy mystery plot surrounding the death of Max's first wife, and a weird political side plot about the Burr Conspiracy. I have no idea why that last one was included at all.
Lysette and Max liked each other for the majority of the book, which is something that you don't see a ton of in romance. There's a reason for that: it eliminates a huge source of conflict, and makes the romantic plot easy to wrap up early. Which leaves you with a couple of hundred pages to fill after that. And while they liked each other, I didn't really feel any chemistry between them. Their dynamics were very weird, with Max loving how outspoken Lysette was and how she challenged him, but still being extremely dismissive of her opinions and feelings.
And then there were the twins, Justin and Philippe. They're apparently fifteen, and when the book starts Lysette is described as being their age, but apparently she's actually about five years older. Lysette wasn't very involved with them, but was surprisingly open to Justin considering how it was heavily implied he was okay with raping her at the beginning of the book when he and Philippe find Lysette in the bayou. I really couldn't get over that rocky start, and it bothered me all the way through the book, especially when Lysette and Justin were so buddy-buddy in the later parts. The "forced seduction" is a big trope in romance, especially in romances from the 80s and early 90s, but this wasn't a case of that because Justin wasn't the love interest, which made it seem extra strange and out of place.
Overall, I'm glad this wasn't my first experience with Kleypas' work. I really love her more recent books and try to snap them up as soon as they're out (though I'm still on the library's waiting list for Marrying Winterbourne) but this was not a book that would encourage me to read more. It's nice to see that Kleypas has grown so much as a writer in the years since this came out, but honestly this was a hard one to read in general.
2 stars out of 5, and most of that is because of the setting. Romances set in New Orleans are rare, in my experience, and I think it was a nice change from the ton romances that normally fill this genre--though I love those, too!