In this beautifully written “Christmas gift to her readers” (Booklist) New York Times bestselling author Mary Balogh draws on the warmth of the holiday season to heal the wounds of the human heart in five cherished novellas of family, friends, lovers, and strangers….
This is a collection of five short stories/novellas, most of which I believe have been available in other collections except for A Family Christmas which was a new story at time of publication, and is my favourite of the set.
There’s something about the way Mary Balogh writes Christmas-themed stories which puts her in a class of her own. She’s said herself that she always thinks of Christmas itself as the third major character in her festive novels and stories – these aren’t books that could be set at any other time of year as is the case with so many others – and that’s certainly strongly displayed by the messages espoused of love, reconciliation and hope that are woven into them. There are no heavy-handed religious messages in the stories, although given that at the time period in which they are set, the religious aspect of the festival – and people’s lives in general – was much more prominent than perhaps it is today, Ms Balogh quite rightly does make references to the Christian aspects of this particular holiday.
While I enjoyed the collection overall, I have one particular issue with the execution which applies to almost all of these vignettes, which is that the short-story or novella format doesn’t allow for much in the way of character or relationship development. In two or three of them, the principals fall in love at warp speed, which does stretch one’s credulity somewhat. But perhaps I’m more tolerant at this time of year – I was still able to enjoy what I read in spite of the massive contrivances needed to get the principals where they needed to be at the end of each story.
In A Family Christmas an estranged husband and wife make an unexpected connection—and an illuminating discovery—during the holiday season.
This novella reminded me a bit of the fabulous A Christmas Promise, which I read for the first time last year, and which is now a Christmas staple. A young couple who have been married for less than a year have spent most of that year apart, thanks to the efforts of the wife’s horribly snobbish Mama. She never ceases to remind her daughter of the fact that her new husband, while inordinately wealthy and who has in fact rescued them from the brink of impecuniosity, is a mere cit who will never be worthy of her. She even treats him like dirt on his rare visits home – and he, seeing his wife meekly allowing it, decides he’s better off in London. Returning home for Christmas to the wife he regards as cold and the baby son he has hardly seen, Edwin Chambers wants to see if there is any hope for the marriage, or if his wife is still living in her mother’s pocket. I’m a sucker for an arranged-marriage / poor-aristo-weds-money storyline, so this one pushed all my buttons.
The Star of Bethlehem is a lost diamond ring causing a riff in an already troubled marriage until a servant solves not one mystery but three surrounding its disappearance.
This story sees another unhappily married couple rediscovering their feelings for each other, this time with a little help from a missing ring and a mop-headed chimney sweep called Nicky. (Geddit? A bit on the anvilicious side, that one!) The second-chance romance is another big favourite of mine, so I was disposed to enjoy the story, although I felt the “let’s rescue a poor kid and make the world a better place” side-plot was a little heavy-handed.
The Best Gift can come at the most unexpected moments, especially for a lonesome teacher enlisted over the holidays to chaperone the niece of a notorious rake.
This is one of those stories in which the romance didn’t so much develop as leap onto the page fully formed.
Viscount Buckley suddenly finds himself lumbered with his fifteen year-old niece for the festive season, as her parents have buggered off on a trip to Italy. Having no idea what to do with the girl, he impulsively invites her teacher, Jane Craggs to accompany her as her companion and chaperone. Jane was orphaned young and has never had a real Christmas, so she grabs the chance to make merry for the first and possibly only time in her life. Arrived at the viscount’s country seat, he’s further astonished to discover that a “package” has been delivered unexpectedly, in the shape of his four-year-old illegitimate daughter.
The author skilfully draws the parallels between young Veronica and Jane, who believes herself to be the product of a liaison similar to the one which produced Veronica – and evokes sympathy for Jane’s situation as one of those friendless, “grey” young women who hover on the fringes of society caring for its young and never really fitting in anywhere.
Buckley’s interest in and affection for Jane pretty much comes out of nowhere, but then I suppose a romance between the drab governess and handsome nobleman is what one is expecting. I just wish it had been given a little more time to develop.
Playing House finds an impoverished young woman longing to celebrate just one last, joyous Christmas before she and her orphaned siblings are separated forever.
Playing House sees another nobleman – the Marquess of Bedford – with a young daughter (a legitimate one, this time) finding love at Christmas time, this time with a young woman he’d known many years ago and with whom he had shared a youthful infatuation. Her family on the verge of being split up, Lilias AngRove goes to see him to beg the repayment of a favour once done him by her father. All she wants is to give her brother and sister a Christmas to remember before they are forced to part, and so asks him for a goose and the gifts she wants for her siblings.
She is surprised by his reception of her, which is full of thinly veiled hostility. He immediately jumps to the conclusion that she is spinning him a yarn and setting her cap at him – after all, he’s young and wealthy with a child to raise, and it wouldn’t be the first time a gold-digger has tried to get her claws into him.
His daughter, having no other children of anywhere near her own age to play with, becomes attached to Lilias’ younger siblings, which, naturally, brings the grumpy viscount and his former love back together. It’s a sweet story, although I did think the hero came across as a bit vicious to start with, his assumptions about Lilias are completely unfounded, and he holds onto those assumptions for rather too long.
And in No Room at the Inn, a winter storm on Christmas Eve brings a young couple in from the cold, desperately in need of warmth and shelter for their unborn child.
A group of travellers are unfortunately stranded at a nondescript inn in Wiltshire on Christmas Eve. There’s a rakish Marquess with his roving eye on a young governess, an unhappily married couple, a gruff soldier and his wife, a pair of maiden aunts, and a quiet, mysterious stranger who seems content just to observe.
The arrival of a young couple – unmarried but with parenthood imminent nonetheless – sees this group of strangers banding together to help the young woman deliver her baby… and it’s not until afterwards that anyone mentions the obvious parallels.
I rather like stories that begin like this – a group of people who may never have given each other the time of day under other circumstances who are forced into company and then to re-evaluate their thoughts about each other, but the problem with doing that in the novella format is that it doesn’t allow enough time for character development. I could just about buy the unhappy couple making a fresh start, but the rakish marquess does a volte face of such astonishing speed that it’s not at all believable. But the story itself is sweet and I enjoyed the idea of friendship formed under the unlikeliest of circumstances, and people united by the birth of a child at Christmas.
Overall, Under the Mistletoe is an enjoyable seasonal collection, if you’re prepared to overlook the deficiencies occasioned by the shorter format applied to each of the tales in the set.