Janine: It's been roughly four years since the first time I read Mary Balogh's A Christmas Promise. At the time, I loved the book, so when I heard it was being reissued, I thought this would be a great time to review it. I felt a little trepidation though, because sometimes books I used to adore don't have the same effect on me when I reread them years later.
Sunita: I thought I had read this book before but when I picked it up a couple of months ago, I realized it was new to me. The synopsis made me think it was similar to Georgette Heyer's A Civil Contract, which is one of my favorites among her novels, but it's not very romantic. The book does share some plot similarities, but the tone is quite different.
Janine: A Christmas Promise is a marriage of convenience story, a Christmas celebration story, and also a story that deals with grieving. It begins when Randolph Pierce, Earl of Falloden, receives a visit from Mr. Joseph Transome, a successful coal merchant.
Randolph has recently inherited the earldom, and with it the country home in which he grew up. Grenfell Park is mortgaged to the hilt, and Randolph has refused to sell it in order to pay off this and the other debts which his cousin, the previous earl, ran up.
Mr. Transome has purchased all of Randolph's debts, and he offers Randolph the following bargain: he will cancel all of Randolph's debts and settle half his enormous fortune on Randolph, if Randolph will marry his only daughter.
Randolph immediately balks at the notion of marrying a stranger, and the daughter of a "cit." He is in love with Miss Dorothea Lovestone, though he cannot afford to offer for her. He asks the coal merchant for more time, but Transome replies that that is time is the one thing he does not have. Although Randolph does not immediately realize it, Joseph Transome is dying.
The frail Mr. Transome grants Randolph a mere 24 hours to think over his offer, and after drinking himself to a near-stupor, Randolph realizes he has little choice unless he wants to sell Grenfell Park, which he cannot bear to do. The next day he tells Mr. Transome that he will agree to marry his daughter Eleanor.
Mr. Transome is pleased, though he stipulates two more conditions: The union must be consummated on the wedding night, and Randolph must reside with his new wife for the first year of their marriage.
Meanwhile, Eleanor Transome is at least as repelled by the thought of marrying an earl as Randolph is at the notion of allying himself with a coal merchant's daughter. Not only has Eleanor been rejected by members of the aristocracy in the past, despite her finishing school manners, but she is also in love with someone else: her second cousin, Wilfred.
But Wilfred, a shipping company clerk, has written Eleanor that he cannot in good conscience marry her while his prospects are so poor, nor ask her to wait for his circumstances to improve. Since Wilfred has left her no hope of a marriage between them, Eleanor agrees to fulfill her father's dying wish by marrying Randolph.
Randolph and Eleanor's first meeting does not go well. Eleanor believes Randolph is a spendthrift and gambler who has wasted his own fortune and will do the same to her father's, while Randolph thinks Eleanor is ambitious and grasping in her pursuit of a title.
It does not help Randolph's perception that Eleanor, conscious of her father's physical suffering, barely touches the dying man, and that self-consciousness makes her stiff in Randolph's presence. Randolph believes his soon-to-be bride is cold, and when Mr. Transome assures Randolph that in time he will see that Eleanor is the greatest of all the treasures Transome has bestowed on him, Randolph refrains from saying that he cannot imagine such thing will ever come to pass.
Nonetheless, the two young people marry and the wedding night scene is both surprising and memorable. Mary Balogh is a master, in my opinion, at depicting the evolution of a couple's relationship in the progression of the ways they make love. The sex scenes in her books can sometimes be strange or even uncomfortable to read, but they are also memorable and very effective at showing the nature of the couple's feelings toward one another. The angry sex between Randolph and Eleanor is both painful and oddly pleasurable, and it shocks both of them.
The next day, Eleanor goes to her father's house and remains there until Joseph's death. Before her father dies she does her best to give him assurances she does not believe about her husband and her marriage, and in turn, Eleanor's father extracts a promise from her. She is not to mourn him for long, and she is to celebrate Christmas with all the joy she is capable of.
But will Eleanor be able to keep her Christmas promise when she has not even be able to cry all the tears trapped inside her at the loss of her only remaining and loving parent? How can she evince joy at Christmas when she learns that Randolph was in love with Dorothea Lovestone, and that he is rumored to be keeping a mistress?
Will it be possible for Eleanor to celebrate the holiday when Randolph suspects she is too cold to mourn her father, and when he has invited four lonely gentlemen to share the holiday with them, one of whom Eleanor has reason to despise? Can Christmas be anything but fraught with conflict, when Eleanor has invited twenty of her boisterous middle class relatives to Grenfell Park at the same time and when Wilfred arrives with them, uninvited?
Will all these obstacles make Christmas at Grenfell Park an inescapable disaster? Or will a Christmas miracle enable Randolph and Eleanor to see each other with new eyes, and heal the breach between them?
Sunita: Your summary perfectly illustrates how much this book is and is not like Heyer's. The similarities are there: Rich Cit buys impoverished nobleman for cultured daughter, both must learn to live with each other. But even apart from the wedding-night sex scene, which I found intense and surprising, and the greater level of sexual tension and awareness, there are key differences. For one thing, Eleanor is beautiful. More importantly, while Mr. Transome sets the plot in motion and his memory shapes events in the book, he is not physically present for most of it, allowing Balogh to concentrate on the romance at the core of the story.
Janine: As I mentioned above, I approached rereading A Christmas Promise with some trepidation because it's rare for a book to have the same intense emotional impact on me on rereading that it had the first time. I remembered my first reading of A Christmas Promise as magical, and I wasn't sure that lightning would strike twice for me with this book.
Imagine my delight when the book proved to be as magical and seamless as I remembered. It was such a beautiful reading experience for me that I can't keep from describing it in metaphors and saying that it has the crystalline sparkle of snow; the sharp, stark, melancholy beauty of a deep winter twilight; the warmth and sweetness of a hot mug of cocoa, and the deep emotion of holiday music.
Sunita: I agree that this is a beautifully written book. Many of Balogh's earlier and very good novels are light on dialogue but very heavy on introspection and internal monologues. In this book, where the hero and heroine are thrown together and develop an unwilling attraction, this lets us see their feelings develop and uses their sharp words toward each other sparingly.
Janine: You make a great point. Let's discuss the characters.
Randolph isn't always good to Eleanor, but I found him sympathetic because it was clear from early on, when he showed her father compassion, that he had a good heart. He starts out making some mistakes, like not comforting Eleanor after her father's death, and seeing his mistress, but he realizes these were mistakes and he rectifies them.
I love the way Eleanor gradually grows on him, and he starts to realize how wrong he was about her. He sees that she has a loving heart, and he wants that love for himself. He's just not sure how to get from point A to point B. But he wants to be a good husband, and by the end of the book, he is everything Eleanor could ask for.
Sunita: I also really liked that Randolph could reevaluate his own behavior and assumptions as he got to know Eleanor. His initial reactions to her father and her family were snobbish and suspicious, but as he spent time with Eleanor and her family, he allowed his greater knowledge to reshape his opinions and feelings. You never feel that Randolph will lose his aristocratic instincts, but at the same time he can see the disadvantages of his upbringing. I thought Balogh hit the balance really well, in that both characters learned from each other without losing their individuality.
Janine: As for Eleanor, boy, I really felt for her despite her outward coldness to Randolph. She loves her father so much and his loss unmoors her. She has a tendency to get defensive and to lash out when hurt but I loved that fighter aspect of her personality. For example when Dorothea Lovestone's mother tells Eleanor about Randolph's mistress, Eleanor finds a way to make Lady Lovestone uncomfortable.
Sunita: Eleanor's relationship with her father had a special poignancy for me, because I am an only child and was extremely close to my father. He died suddenly and unexpectedly, and even though it's been almost ten years, I still miss him terribly. Balogh beautifully captured that sense of rudderlessness that can overwhelm you when you lose someone close to you. I found this aspect of the novel hard to read the first time, and I think I may have skimmed a bit. The second time I was prepared, but wow, it still packs a punch.
Janine: The larger cast of characters is also memorable. There are three other pairings in the book and I enjoyed all of them. Sir Albert Hagley, Randolph's best friend, seemed like a jerk at first but really redeemed himself by the end of the book.
The members of Eleanor's family were wonderful (with the exception of Wilfred) and they showed Randolph and his friends that the middle class has as much to offer them as vice versa. In another book, I might have found something like that unrealistic, but I thought it worked here because the initial snobbery wasn't overcome in an instant.
Sunita: I agree. These aren't people that are going to suddenly become kindred spirits, but they appreciate each other. It helps that everyone seems comfortable with their own class location.
Janine: The theme of mistaken first impressions, which is present in many of Ms. Balogh's books, is so well-executed in this one. Eleanor and Randolph have legitimate reasons to think badly of one another, and it makes sense that they cling to those mistaken first impressions early out of misplaced loyalty to the people they believe they are in love with. But they agree to be civil to each other pretty quickly and they start to give one another the benefit of the doubt shortly after that.
Sunita: Isn't it nice to have characters who mostly behave like thinking adults? They act on a lot of snap judgements and mistaken impressions at the beginning, but they get over them.
Janine: Agreed. Something else I really appreciated was that the book shows the holiday season in all its facets. Yes, it's a time of boisterous celebration and of family closeness for some, but it's also a time of loneliness for others and a time for missing loved ones who are no longer with us.
Sunita: Balogh has a number of books set at Christmas time, and I think she pulls off the tension between loneliness, loss, and the almost obsessive desire to be happy in the holidays better in this book than in most of them. Perhaps it works because the difficult emotions aren't only being experienced by the hero and heroine.
Janine: It's rare for me to enjoy every single page of a book but I did with this one. Still, if I had to pick a favorite scene from A Christmas Promise, it would have to be the last scene. I don't want to give away what happens but suffice to say that I almost emptied my box of tissues when I read it.
Sunita: The last few scenes are incredibly powerful to me. I also liked the scenes in the village, especially in the school.
Janine: For a grade, I'm torn between A- and A. I know there is no such thing as a perfect book, and there are minor nitpicks I could make about this book (for example, it seems doubtful that Randolph, a peer, was really in danger of going to debtor's prison for not repudiating his cousin's debts, and being Jewish, I would not have objected to less of a focus on the story of the birth of Christ), but I was so caught up in the story that I hardly minded these things. Perfect books may not exist, but as holiday reads go, I can't think of one that is closer to perfect.
Sunita: Agreed. I love Christmas stories despite the fact that I'm not Christian. I think the Bethlehem focus felt even stronger because of the birth-death dichotomy. Also, the neat matching up of the secondary characters seemed a bit much. If I hadn't known otherwise, I would have assumed they were sequel bait. But whether it's an A or an A-, it's a real keeper. I am so glad these early Baloghs are being released.