It’s become a tradition for me already, in the build-up to Christmas – beginning the season sometime in mid-November and reading Carole Matthews’ new Christmas novel. This year’s ‘Calling Mrs Christmas’ came at just the right time for me… while November is vicious and rainy, and our house is still full of soot damage and builders, and everything’s a bit fraught… what I really needed to read is a tightly-plotted, funny, heart-warming story of how one woman takes a grip on her life and seizes the (Christmas) day.
I loved the story of Cassie Smith’s brainwave for getting herself out of the doldrums of watching daytime TV and setting herself up as Mrs Christmas. She starts small by offering to write out other people’s cards and wrapping their presents, and winds up getting paid to make a dashing but depressed millionaire’s dreams come true. It’s another book in which a woman sets herself up in business (I seem to have read a lot of these in the past year! It’s a sub-genre..!) but this one is charming – I really believe in Cassie’s flinging herself into her work and changing everyone’s life for the better. I think this is because Carole’s heroines are never sappy or too annoyingly perfect. They always drink, swear, despair, say the wrong thing sometimes, and sometimes at just the right time. Her heroines are always funny and kind, and want to make things right for everyone – not because the plot demands it, but because they’re just believably nice. Not saccharine – just nice. It’s a very hard thing to write about.
And niceness gets her heroines into trouble. Flashy, expensive men like Carter Randall start to take notice, and become determined to throw everything over for the chance of taking her away from her fella. Already by that point we have such a great picture of Cassie’s relationship with her boyfriend, Jim – their closeness and the way they’ve faced up to adversity. Carter throws everything up in the air when he insists Cassie comes on the Lapland trip he’s paid her to organize for himself and his kids. And, once he’s got her in that hot tub in a wireless and luxurious shack deep inside the snowy woods he starts making her all sorts of promises. And, because she’s so real, she naturally has her head turned and she starts to wonder what life with Carter might be like.
We spend the last half of the novel in a whirl of indecision along with Cassie about where she should turn, and who she should pick. There are no easy answers and, at least two points in the proceedings, Carole Matthews makes Santa Claus cry as a result of the moral quandaries and general upset.
But it’s a very funny and romantic novel, too. I loved all the stuff about the husky sleigh rides and the fairytale ice hotel. Those chapters are a terrific interlude amid all the hectic dashing about and the greyness of home. There’s a bit of magic lodged inside the book, I think. As well as great compassion – which really comes across in the sub-plot to do with the two boys from the young offenders’ home where Jim works. He steps over the line and practically adopts them; getting them to work as elves in Cassie’s business, and doing everything he can to help them into a new life and a flat together. It’s a very touching story – and all about how a little love and attention can bring even the most hopeless cases back from the brink.
There’s a mention of how the boys in the young offenders’ home have no Christmas as such to look forward to. Some of them brew a rough kind of alcohol out of rotting fruit in their rooms, unless they get caught. This rhymes ironically and tragically with the source of the romantic Carter Randall’s vast wealth: he has built his fortune on creating boozy fruit smoothies. It’s just a tiny moment – a little echo inside the book – but it invites us to compare the relative fates of characters in Carole’s world.
She gets her various heroines to try to gather up all these characters and put their lives back on course before the end of the book. Her Christmas stories are about the work you need to do in order to create second chances for yourself and others.
So - tell me. Is it too early to be reading Christmas books? Have you started yet? Just
to cheer up November a bit and to get you into the mood? Let me know what your favourites are. I'd love to hear about ones I don't know...