If you are looking for an example of the perfect Victorian romance, you need go no further than Lisa Kleypas’ Hello Stranger. It has everything: a strong independent heroine, a rough but good hearted hero, a twisty plot, a setting that comes alive, and a heavy dose of wit and charm. Even though this book is the 4th book in the author’s Ravenels series, you can jump right in and enjoy this wild ride.
Garrett Gibson is the only female doctor in England. She is committed to helping the poor and makes nightly visits to a workhouse in a rough area of London. Unbeknownst to her, former police detective turned spy Ethan Ransom has been following her, keeping an attentive eye on her safety. Ethan and Garrett have met before, while aiding other members of the Ravenel and Winterborne families. In fact, Ethan is a member of the Ravenel family, although born on the other side of the blanket. Ethan hates his Ravenel connections, because of how they treated his mother, but Garrett remains friends with members of the clan; in fact she works works for Lady Helen’s husband in one of Winterborne’s clinics.
On this particular night, Ethan and Garrett collide when Garrett is attacked by three unsavory men as she walks home from her workhouse rounds. Although Garrett make short work of two of her attackers, Ethan swoops in and helps her take out the third. The two strike up an unlikely friendship, with Garrett seeing something deeper in Ethan’s cynical, dark manner and Ethan being impressed with her determination, will and capabilities. Although Ethan tries his best to keep Garrett out of his complicated life, the two are drawn together repeatedly by a fate that can’t be denied.
Ethan offers to train Garrett in the art of hand to hand combat, and Garrett jumps at the chance. It’s a pretty steamy sequence without any overt sex, and surprisingly offers some really great advice for women who may find themselves attacked. Ethan and Garrett also share a magical night on the town, after which Ethan tries to disentangle himself from her, knowing he’s putting her in danger. Unfortunately it’s too late; Ethan’s boss, spymaster Sir Jasper Jankyn, has found out about his feelings for Garrett, and uses her as a pawn to keep Ethan in line. For indeed, Ethan’s loyalties are divided; although he owes Sir Jasper gratitude for taking him in and training him, he knows the old man is involved in a treasonous plot against the government.
As their story unfolds, we get glimpses into the past of both Garrett and Ethan. This serves to make them knowable, relatable characters. In fact, Kleypas based Garrett on real-life London physician Dr. Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, who was the country’s first and only licensed female doctor in the nation in 1873. Ethan has the requisite tragic backstory – and it’s very tragic – but you’re able to see how it shaped him and helped him develop certain skill sets. The other characters are way more than names on the page; I loved Garrett’s father, a retired constable who has always been supportive of his only daughter. He’s got quite the wicked wit too. I loved meeting the Winterbournes and the Ravenels; I realise most of them have appeared in other books, but Kleypas doesn’t rely on any past knowledge of them to make them fully fleshed for readers new to the series. I especially loved West Ravenel, the former rake turned farmer (I actually hope his story is the next one told).
The fast-paced plot keeps you turning pages. Not one aspect is put aside to play up another; the spy plot is equally as important as the relationship. It’s not a mere conveyance to bring our hero and heroine together. The sex is beautifully (and hotly) described, but it’s also funny at times. Garrett is a doctor after all, and not unschooled in the human body. “Your trapezius and deltoids are remarkable,” she says dreamily. That’s a line I’m going to have to try out one of these days!
There’s also a lot of social commentary as Garrett is an advocate for the poor and for women. She often shocks patients with her forthright descriptions of their health needs, which male doctors tend to dismiss or tell the women to ignore or hide. She gets into trouble for telling a woman with 12 children about birth control, and she’s also not shy about telling Ethan about the manner of birth control she uses. Ethan often breaks the law to see that justice is served, especially amongst the highborn, saying, “The law doesn’t always work when it comes to men like that.”
The historical background isn’t mere set dressing. We learn about Dr. Joseph Lister, whose antiseptic practices revolutionized surgery in preventing infections. (The mouthwash Listerine is named after him.) We learn about early blood transfusions; from Ethan we learn the evolution of locks and safes. Even farming techniques are added to the mix. We get to take a ride on the Necropolis Railway, a private train used to transport the dead throughout England.
I’m sure you can tell I thoroughly enjoyed Hello Stranger, and I even went back and purchased the rest of the Ravenel series. Kleypas is a gifted writer, a master of her genre, and I looked forward to reading more of her work!
You can purchase her novels wherever fine books are sold. Remember Kleypas’ motto, “A well read woman is a dangerous creature.”