Crap, I’m really behind with the recently read books discussion, because this is what I read over Christmas and New Year. Since it was the holiday season, I decided to take a break from speculative romance and read something a little lighter and seasonally appropriate. So I turned to a Mills & Boon 2-in-1 Christmas romance, namely:
What is most notable about both novels is that they have the same plot. And not just the same plot in the sense that all romances have the same plot of “girl meets boy, faces and overcomes obstacles, they happily ever after”, but the exact same plot. In both novels we have a young woman disappointed by love, laden with trust issues and financial woes who struggles to make a perfect Christmas for herself and others. We have a dark hero overcome by grief and unable to love, both of which manifests itself as an irrational hatred for Christmas. And we have cute orphaned children (and in one case an infirm spaniel) looking for love, family and connection. Circumstances involving copious amounts of snow and ice throw these characters together, love blossoms and the Christmas spirit makes everything all right.
In Their Christmas Family Miracle by Caroline Anderson, our beleaguered heroine is Amelia “Millie” Jones, single mom of three kids and a dog (the above mentioned infirm spaniel), who finds herself dumped by her embezzling husband, homeless and without either job or money just before Christmas. Luckily, Amelia’s best friend Kate, another single mom who will undoubtedly find love in another novel, has the perfect solution. For Kate’s boss just happens to have a beautiful mansion in the Berkshire countryside that just happens to be empty over the holiday, because he doesn’t like Christmas and always goes skiing. And Kate just happens to have the key, because he asked her to look after the house. And really, he is the most generous man in the world and certainly won’t mind Amelia moving in with her brood.
However, Kate’s boss, one Jake Forrester, just happens to have a skiing accident involving a narrow escape from an avalanche, which leaves him bruised and with a couple of broken bones. So he comes home early, finds Amelia and her kids (and the infirm spaniel) in his house and throws a fit, understandably not amused by the whole situation. After downing a few painkillers, Jake realises that he has been a dick and allows Amelia and her kids to stay over Christmas, in exchange for Amelia cooking and taking care of him (since he is injured and his housekeeper on holiday), while keeping the kids out of his way. For Jake Forrester has issues with kids. He does, however, have a soft spot for infirm spaniels.
Over the next few days, we watch Jake, Amelia, the kids and the spaniel getting used to each other, as they decorate the house, go Christmas shopping, have dinner and frolic in the snow together. Sparks fly between Jake and Amelia and in spite of his issues, Jake bonds quickly with Amelia’s kids, 8-year-old Edward, 5-year-old Kitty and baby Thomas.
What I really liked here is that Jake bonds mostly with Edward, the oldest kid, who feels responsible for his mother and younger siblings, now that his father is gone. And they bond over a shared interest in choir singing – Jake used to be a chorister, Edward has a beautiful voice and would love to sing – an interest which Edward’s cad of a dad has always dismissed as “for sissies”. You’d expect the bond to be formed via sports or something similarly masculine, so it’s a pleasant surprise that it’s choir singing instead.
Eventually, Amelia and the reader learn just why Jake dislikes Christmas so much. For many years ago, Jake’s wife and his infant son were killed by a drunk driver a few days before Christmas*. And ever since then, Jake has been running away from Christmas by going skiing, because he cannot bear watching others celebrate the holiday that took his family away. This is also why he has issues with kids, since baby Thomas reminds him of his son as he was, while Edward reminds him of his son as he would be now. But once he meets Amelia and her kids and finds himself attracted to them, Jake decides that it’s time to move on, that he deserves a new life and a family. And he happens to have a readymade family in his home.
But that Jake is ready to move on does not mean that Amelia is ready to move on as well, because her ex-husband has left her with serious trust issues. And Jake – a wealthy businessman of uncertain professional background – seems to be the same sort of shifty dealing and wheeling type as her ex-husband. So when Jake puts the moves on Amelia, persuades Edward to try out for a choir school (which Amelia can’t afford) and offers Amelia first a job, then a house (rent-free) and finally marriage in rapid succession, she says no and takes off with her kids to stand on her own two feet. This was another development I liked, because no matter how rich, tortured and gorgeous the guy is, you don’t say “yes” to someone who proposes marriage after knowing you for three days.
Jake’s job offer to Amelia is the one moment where I really had to suspend my disbelief. Because Amelia is a translator, just like myself. And the job Jake offers her involves a monthly retainer and an additional payment per translation done. Now I’ve never met a translator who worked at such terms. Either you’re firmly employed somewhere and get a monthly wage just like everybody else. Or you’re freelance and get paid at a job by job basis. But I’ve never met anybody who got a retainer. But then, I’ve never had drop dead gorgeous widowed millionaires after my translation skills either. I guess I can file this one under “fail, because I know too much about the subject”.
In the end, it is the infirm spaniel which brings Amelia and Jake back together. For the infirm spaniel suddenly takes a dramatic turn for the worse and Jake rushes in to pay the medical bills. Had this been a US rather than UK-set romance, I suspect that one of the kids would have fallen ill for extra drama. But since the UK has universal healthcare, the poor little doggy had to suffer. The dog recovers, Amelia finally realises that Jake is not like her husband (who never liked the spaniel anyway) and they live happily ever after. And Edward gets to sing at the wedding.
Apart from the translator payment fail, this was a very nice, heartwarming romance. The kids felt realistic enough, particularly Edward, Jake and Amelia were likable, their problems believable. Just what you want to read for Christmas.
The second novel, Snowbound Bride-to-Be by Cara Colter, is set in the Maritime provinces of Canada, namely in New Brunswick. This alone made it special, because I don’t think I’ve ever read a novel set in New Brunswick before. What is more, there is a strong sense of place here.
The heroine is one Emma White who runs a B&B in an old farmhouse she inherited from her grandmother in a small out of the way village in New Brunswick. Emma comes from a problematic family background, had an emotionally abusive mother and a controlling ex-fiance who dumped her for his ex-girlfriend. As a result, Emma has never had a good Christmas in her whole life. Determined to change at least that, she has planned a huge Christmas event at her little B&B complete with ice skating on a nearby lake, sleighrides, cookie sales, hotdogs and hot chocolate and Christmas gifts for needy families. There’s a bit of a cultural disconnect here, because in Germany an event like Emma’s would definitely involve mulled wine, eggnog and probably grog as well. Emma’s Christmas event, however, is alcohol-free, as far as I can determine, probably due to the North American belief that drinking alcohol under the open sky is somehow wrong.
Alas, everything goes wrong for Emma when a blizzard hits on the first day of her multi-day Christmas events, closing the roads and taking out the power. What is more, her B&B has only one or rather two guests, the darkly handsome architect Ryder Richardson and his baby niece Tess, who were left stranded by the snowstorm and the road closure.
Ryder does not like Christmas. He does not like Emma’s ramshackle B&B, though he does like Emma and her goofy fashion sense. Nonetheless, he’d much rather be elsewhere, but since they’re snowed in, he doesn’t have a choice.
The novel follows Ryder and Emma making the best of the situation, camping out in the living room, since that’s the only part of the house heated by a fireplace, burying hotdogs in snowdrifts to keep them from going bad, clearing the driveway and the frozen lake next to the house. Lest the situation become a little too claustrophobic, they are joined by Emma’s neighbours, widowed farmer Tim Fenshaw Sr, his daughter-in-law Mona and granddaughters Peggy and Sue. Peggy and Sue are immediately taken by baby Tess and also by Ryder, as their own father is a soldier with the Canadian forces in Afghanistan and they are looking for a replacement father figure. The elder Tim is also quickly taken by Ryder, once he realizes that Ryder knows to work with his hands. And of course, attraction blossoms between Emma and Ryder.
Gradually, the reader and Emma learn that Ryder hates Christmas, because the year before, his brother’s house burned down on Christmas Eve, killing his brother and sister-in-law and leaving Ryder in charge of baby Tess. For me, Ryder’s traumatic past worked better than Jake Forrester’s. First of all, because a house fire is a less common way to off characters and generate instant trauma for the survivors than a car crash caused by a drunken driver. Secondly, because Ryder’s trauma is a lot more tangible than Jake’s. It more recent, for starters. What is more, Ryder spends much of the novel wrecked by a bad case of survivor’s guilt that he wasn’t strong enough to save his brother and sister-in-law, that he failed them, to the point that he neither acknowledges nor realizes that he did manage to save Tess after all. Nor is Ryder the only one affected by the fire. Tess, though only a few weeks old when the fire hit, is traumatized as well. There is a scene where Tess is terrified of the flames in the fireplace, because they trigger her own traumatic memories.
Another thing I really liked about Snowbound Bride-to-Be is that the children all felt utterly realistic. Tess isn’t an angel or a prop, she is a baby with a trauma and occasional foul moods. What is more, Ryder isn’t coping all that well at the beginning of the novel. He can’t persuade Tess to let him brush or even touch her hair (she is fine with women brushing her hair, though), he can’t persuade her not to call him “Mama”, he can’t get a handle on fussy baby clothes. The interaction between the two neighbour girls, Peggy and Sue, and Tess is lovely rendered as well. The three children immediately bond and the two older girls not only manage to brush Tess’ hair, they also teach her to say “Uncle” to Ryder. Again, this feels very realistic, because children do learn from each other. According to my parents, the daughter of a coworker of my Dad’s taught me to walk by finding a way to persuade me, when no one else could.
Once the roads open up again, Ryder takes off with a wailing Tess, scared of the growing closeness with Emma and the fact that his deep, dark trauma is beginning to heal. And doesn’t healing mean that he is betraying his brother and sister-in-law? However, he returns to Emma just in time for Christmas, prompted at least partly by an utterly uncooperative Tess who wants Emma and the two Fenshaw girls and simply won’t stop crying until she gets what she wants. I must say, as a plot device to get the lovers back together, a sulking baby is a lot more effective than an ailing spaniel.
I think what makes Snowbound Bride-To-Be work so well is that at its heart, it is a story about healing. It’s the story of Ryder overcoming his trauma and his grief to realize that he did not fail his brother, for he saved Tess. It’s the story of Emma overcoming her history of emotional abuse, first at the hands of her mother and then at the hands of her fiance, and realizing that the B&B and the perfect Christmas she craves are just substitutes for what she really craves, love and acceptance. Last but not least, it’s the story of Tess, the orphaned baby, finding a new family. However, it’s also very clear that not all wounds can be healed. Emma’s mother remains distant and unresponsive, they never reconcile. Yet it does not matter, because she has her own family now. And Ryder never feels entirely happy around Christmas time, the memory and the grief is always there. But it’s no longer all consuming.
There is a slight religious touch to the whole novel. Nothing overly preachy and not even any overt mentions of God or any specific religion. But a wreath on Emma’s door spelling out the word “Belief” acts as a divine message of sorts and Emma calls Ryder saving Tess from the flames a miracle. What is more, there is no sex at all in the novel and also a mention that Emma and Ryder do not have sex, before they get married, because Ryder feels it would set a bad example for Tess (who at 14 months old would barely notice). All of that made me wonder whether the novel had been published in one of Harlequin’s religious Steeple Hill lines in North America**. But it turns out that Snowbound Bride-to-Be was a regular Harlequin Romance in North America. Still, the religious slant is notable.
Even the standard romance epilogue featuring wedded bliss and babies on the way is less sappy than usual. Okay, so the epilogue does show Ryder and Emma happily married and with a baby on the way, Tess as a joyous preschooler and even the Fenshaw family from next door reunited with their soldier husband and father and with a baby sister for Peggy and Sue. But Tess’ dead parents are not forgotten. There is a nice line that Tess calls Emma and Ryder, the only parents she has ever known, “Mama and Papa” and the biological parents who are still very much present in their lives “Mom and Dad”.
I usually reach for category romances when I need a break from whatever else I’ve been reading, because good category romances warm the heart and make you feel good. And this double edition of Their Christmas Family Miracle and Snowbound Bride-to-Be certainly fits the bill. I liked both novels, but in the end I liked Snowbound Bride-to-Be more, because of the way it portrayed the healing powers of love. And really, this is what category romances should do.
*The fictional world seems to be full of drunk drivers just standing by to run over any wife, husband, parent, kid, brother, sister, etc… that needs to be out of the way in order for the plot to progress and the protagonists to suffer some instant angst.
**The religious Steeple Hill Love Inspired category romance lines are not published by Mills and Boon in the UK