Beautiful Stranger by Christina Lauren
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
I don't read a lot of romance. I tend to get prickly about established tropes, and then my reviews upset my romance-loving friends. But I read enough reviews of this book that made me think I might be able to overlook the usual tropes. I wasn't disappointed.
Sara Dillon leaves her cheating ex and her entire life in Chicago for a new job in New York City. On her first night out, she flirts with a man at the bar, and finds herself incredibly turned on by the notion of him watching her dance. When she encounters him on her way back from the bathroom, she deflects his attempts to take her home or to his car, but that doesn't mean they can't have sex. She had no idea she had an exhibitionism fetish, but she's more than willing to explore it when she runs into the guy again.
The book starts off with a lot more sex than I usually expect in romance novels. Somehow, the scenes never feel repetitive; there's something different in each of them, and each advance the relationship or characterizations in an important way. Despite the sheer number of sex scenes, they never feel gratuitous.
For the first half of the book, it's unclear that Max Stella, the titular stranger, is only responding to what turns Sara on, rather than shaping her desires. That becomes a lot more obvious as the story goes on, but initially, it made me mistrust him, and turned some of his remarks far creepier than intended. Every time Sara told him how "nice" he was, I cringed, thinking it was a case of an author trying to make up for bad characterization with contradictory dialogue.
But, no. The initial impression of Max as just another arrogant alpha is a mistaken one. It certainly matches Sara's preconceptions, but I don't think the story would've suffered for showing Max's squishy center from the beginning.
I'm glad I skipped the first book in this series. What I see of the relationship between Chloe, Sara's best friend, and Bennett, makes me want to hand Chloe a list of domestic violence warning signs. Granted, I'm only seeing their relationship filtered through Sara and Max's impressions, but I don't want to see it any closer than that. The series seems to have used up all of its alphahole on Bennett, thank goodness.
Overall, this book played with my expectations, and got me invested in these two characters. I didn't expect to like this book nearly as much as I did.
I listened to Beautiful Stranger on audio, narrated by Grace Grant for Sara's sections, and Jonathan R. Cole for Max's. If you have a thing for British accents, the audio is worth a listen. Though, a warning: I listened to this driving around for work, and often arrived at work sites blushing madly. Did I mention there's a lot of sex in this book? On the audio, it amounts to a scene every half an hour. Guess how long it takes me to drive between work sites?
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