Dear Ms. Knox, Ms. O’Keefe, and Ms. Sloan:
I suspect a conspiracy. Every anthology I’ve read this year, composed of three novellas, contains one novella much weaker than the other two. I can’t figure out if the point is to get the writer of the lesser work to be considered a writer on par with the other writers in the anthology, or if it’s a way to get something purchased simply because it’s connected to authors who write and thus sell well. Naughty and Nice is a classic example of the two good, one bad syndrome. The first novella, Room at the Inn, an inspired re-imagining of It’s a Wonderful Life by the wonderful Ruthie Know is, well, wonderful. I liked it enough to add it to my best of 2012 list. The second, All I want for Christmas by Molly O’Keefe is a prequel to the next novel in her quite good Crooked Creek Ranch series and, though unsettling, is well-written and interesting. The third, One Perfect Christmas by Stephanie Sloan has almost nothing to recommend it: it’s dull, predictable, and full of forced scenes. I’ve never read any of Ms. Sloan’s other works–she has a series called Regency Rakes that’s not been reviewed here at Dear Author. One Perfect Christmas is not an inducement for me to do so.
Room at the Inn is a holiday gift of a tale. I’ve always had a few quibbles with Capra’s Christmas classic, It’s a Wonderful Life. I’ve longed for George to be able to see the world and have Mary and for Mary to have had a fulfilling life whether or not she’s Ms. George Bailey. I almost feel that the message of the movie is the rather dark life may be wonderful but living it isn’t at all inherently so. Don’t misunderstand me–I enjoy watching Capra’s classic. I love the fact this revered and popular American cultural icon celebrates of the lives and dreams of America’s everyday working men and women. But, when I read Ms. Knox’s sly reboot Room at the Inn, I got all tingly inside. Her George Bailey–here named Carson Vance–and Mary Hatch–here named Julie Long–transcend them limits of the characters that inspired them in ways that are a joy to behold.
Carson and Julie met years ago in college. From the moment they sat down next to each other, they’ve been enmeshed. For the first couple of years, when they were still in school, they lived together, bickering madly, making love every chance they got. When Carson brought Julie, a Manhattan rich girl, to visit his parents and home in the upstate New York town of Potter Falls, Julie found a place she wanted to stay forever. She’s lived the past sixteen years of her life in Potter Falls…without Carson. Ever since he was a boy, he yearned to escape from Potter Falls, see the world, and do great things in it. He’s a traveled the globe, building embassies for the Foreign Service, never staying anywhere for more than a year. Over the past sixteen years, he’s come home every few years, checking on his parents and, until six years ago, making love to Julie “at the wrong moments for the wrong reasons. In back rooms, broom closets, hallways. One memorable occasion behind the woodpile.” Currently, though, sex with Julie is not on his Christmas list.
He’d stopped allowing himself “accidents” with Julie years ago, when his mother had not-so-delicately implied that he was stringing her along, and she needed to get on with her life.
If it were up to Julie, the two would probably still be knocking snow boots.
Julie had never been able to resist him—had in fact only quit sleeping with him because he’d stopped trying to get her to. Which was both a profound relief and a terrible blow to her pride.
….And he always did this to her. One minute in his presence, and she was thinking about kissing him. Five minutes, and her mind’s eye would be screwing him on the kitchen table. Within an hour, she’d be spinning impossible fantasies again.
This holiday season, it’s the first time Carson’s come home in three years–he notably missed his mother’s funeral. His mother Glory and his father Martin were Julie’s parents of choice and closest friends. While Carson has been to the far reaches of the planet, Julie has stayed and made a happy, meaningful, productive life for herself in Potter Falls. She’s the lifeblood of the little town, making her little corner of the world a loving, interesting, engaging place. Since Glory died, Martin has seemingly slowly fallen to pieces and Julie–and his father’s social worker–made it clear to Carson he needs to come home and spend some time taking care of his dad. When Carson arrives home, his father tells him he can either sleep on the couch or he can ask Julie if he can crash in one of the rooms in the gorgeous old mansion she’s turned into a successful seasonal Inn. Carson, despite knowing it’s a bad idea–he knows he’ll never be able to give Julie what she really wants from him–decides purgatory with Julie is better than trashing his back on the sofa so he heads over to her place and asks for a room.
“I need a room.”
“I don’t have any rooms.”
“Sure you do. The lot’s empty.”
“I’m closed right now. I only open in the winter for a few weeks around Christmas. Right now, I’m just cleaning and decorating.”
“How can you make a living if you’re only open in the winter?”
“Isn’t that kind of a personal question?”
Carson’s mouth quirked. “We don’t do personal questions anymore?”
“We don’t have a personal relationship. We’re not friends. We’re not—”
She shouldn’t even say the word lovers. Too many memories attached to it. And not just ancient, sixteen-year-old, buried-deep-beneath-the-earth memories. It was only five or six years since the last time she slept with him. Before that, for about a decade, they’d hooked up practically every time he blew through town—on his initiative and hers. Her place, his car. Anywhere.
So many errors in judgment attached to the same crooked smile. The same pair of hands. The same tall, lean, hard body.
When Carson came to Potter Falls, he just sort of … happened to her.
Nonetheless, she agrees to let him stay and he offers to help her get the place in perfect running condition for her soon to arrive holiday guests. It’s a great set-up. Julie has never stopped loving Carson and his absence has, in romantic ways, limited her life. But in other ways, she’s thrived. She has the home she’s always longed for in Potter Falls with good friends, work (including a part-time job a the library!) she enjoys, and people who care for her profoundly. Carson, faced with Julie in all her adult glory, begins to question what it is that might really make him happy for, the longer he stays in Potter Falls, the more he comes to suspect his current choice of being always away isn’t necessarily the right one for who he is now. Julie and Carson struggle with each other in fresh and real ways–I loved their relationship.
Room at the Inn also has a lovely anti-villain in Leo Potter, Carson’s ex-best friend, current enemy, and owner of almost all that is Potter Falls. Ms. Knox has an attuned ear for dialog and every time Leo opens his mouth, he’s funny, wise, and, in all the best ways, determined to find a happy ending for all in Potter Falls. Here, for example, he elegantly queries Carson on why Carson, in tenth grade, stopped being his closest friend.
Leo sort of smiled and shook his head. He leaned back against the booth, his legs widespread, his open face disarmed in a way that made Carson uncomfortable. “Do you even remember why you hate me?”
“I don’t hate you.”
“Don’t bullshit a bullshitter. I’m curious. Do you remember?”
“ ’Course I remember.”
He hated Leo because they’d been best friends. From somewhere in the mists of time around second grade all the way through to their sophomore year in high school, Leo was always over at the house, eating Mom’s cookies, playing Legos, watching TV, and doing homework with him. Until they’d fought.
“Then say it.”
“About me leaving.” Story of his life.
Carson took a bite of the grilled cheese. It was dry and cold, and he had to work hard to chew it.
“You said Potter Falls was a shitty little backwater, and you couldn’t get out of here fast enough.”
“And you said you were going to own the place one day, and I was going to die alone out in the world somewhere, and nobody would notice or care.”
Leo nodded. “So why was that it for us?”
“What do you mean?”
Leo leaned forward. “It wasn’t much of an argument, Carse. You insulted Potter Falls, which you knew damn well means a lot to me, and I was pissed off because I cared more what you thought than anybody else. And jealous because you were going to leave me here for something better, and I knew even then I’d never leave. I said something in the heat of the moment that I later regretted. We were fifteen. Why didn’t you ever get over it?”
Lastly, a Room at the Inn is as hot as the Heat Miser. It won’t surprise anyone Carson doesn’t successfully play the role of the Virgin Mary at this particular inn. I adored the love scenes between Carson and Julie and have a particular fondness for two: one in which Julie asks about Carson’s preference for “Cowgirl” and the other in which Carson explains what it means when he, in certain contexts, agrees to eat dirt. I can’t bring myself to spoil even a line of these for Dear Author readers so, if you’re curious, read the damn novella. I give it an A-.
(The following review contains spoilers in that it shares knowledge about the main characters gleaned from an earlier published book by Ms. O’Keefe.)
I confess to being somewhat disconcerted by Ms. O’Keefe’s All I Want for Christmas is You. Any who have read the second book in the Crooked Creek Ranch series know, in the present, the protagonists of this book, Maddy Baumgarten and Billy Wilkins, are estranged and divorced. All I Want for Christmas is You is actually the prequel to Ms. O’Keefe’s next novel–it tells the modern-day story of Maddy and Billy– due out in January. The four short chapters which make up this novella tell a story of Christmas past, one where Maddy is two days away from turning 18, Billy is 20, and the two are planning, on Maddy’s birthday, the day after Christmas, to elope. Knowing a) the two did indeed marry and b) it ended badly, makes the novella hard to read as anything but a cautionary tale.
As the novella begins, Maddy has come to Billy’s depressing home to collect him for a holiday dinner with her parents where Billy and Maddy plan to tell the Baumgartens about their impending nuptials. Billy and Maddy live in a run-down part of Pittsburgh–Billy in particular comes from an awful family whose family members exist only to drag him down to their depths. Billy has a ticket out of his dead-end world: he’s a second round draft pick in the NHL and is currently playing in the Junior A’s in Rochester. He’s ready to leave town–he’s rented an apartment in Rochester–and he wants to take Maddy with him. Billy cares for only two things in life: hockey and Maddy.
Maddy’s life is externally and internally richer than Billy’s. She’s the only daughter of loving parents who’ve worked to give her a warm and supportive home. Furthermore, unlike Billy, Maddy’s school smart. She’s already managed to cram her whole senior year into the first semester so she can graduate early. She loves Billy every bit as much as he loves her just not quite so single mindedly. Maddy has the chance to be the first person in her family to go to college but she’d rather run away with Billy…or so she thinks most of the time. Her parents want what’s best for her. They see how young she and Billy are, how much he loves her, how hard their life together will likely be.
All I Want for Christmas is You is a melancholy story. As written by Ms. O’Keefe, Maddy and Billy come across as so damn young. I thought they were too damn young–especially Maddy–to marry. There are aspects of their relationship that make me uncomfortable. Billy has a temper Maddy is very aware of–I worried what that might portend for the two as they faced all the stress adult life brings. Billy is Maddy’s first and only lover and the power of that connection–as is so often true in first love–obscures the darker edges of Billy’s overwhelming need for her. As I turned the pages, I hoped they would not marry on Maddy’s birthday; I couldn’t see a happy ending for them as Mr. and Mrs. Billy Wilkins, ages 18 and 20. I concede my perspective on their marriage is colored by knowing that it doesn’t work out the way they dream it will but, even had I not known their future, I wouldn’t have wanted them to tie the knot at City Hall.
Ms. O’Keefe is a terrific writer. Her characters seem genuine and her depictions of place–both physical and social–are stellar. She’s deftly nuanced; her books create a layered and complex world where choices are never starkly right or wrong. Here, Billy gives his seventeen year old sister, already a hard-core junkie, the money she asks him for:
“Oh, sorry,” Denise whispered, shuffling sideways out the door. “Hey, Billy … do you … do you have any money?”
“Yeah,” he whispered back. “Check my coat pocket downstairs.”
“Thanks.” Denise’s eyes lit up as much as they ever did anymore, and she hurried from the room, pulling the door shut behind her. When Billy turned back around he caught sight of Maddy’s scowl. “Babe, it’s twenty bucks.”
“Twenty bucks she’ll spend on drugs.”
“What am I supposed to do?”
“Not give her money.”
Billy shrugged, but she could see right through him, like she always did, like she always had, and the sad truth was that Billy was lost with his sisters.
Their parents in the years since the accident had become non-issues. His father never stepped foot back in the house and Billy’s mother had lost any sort of usefulness years ago. She was a shell, full of booze and regrets, unable to look at Billy without bursting into tears. Which left Billy caught, with no idea how to help Janice and no idea how to say no to Denise. Not when he’d just been given the key to his NHL dream. His salary, even in the minors, was more money than he’d ever had. And it just wasn’t in Billy’s nature not to share.
All I Want for Christmas is You is not an upbeat holiday read. It is, however, interesting and tragic in a way rarely found in romance. I’m glad I read it and I’m glad Ms. O’Keefe is willing to take risks even in the cheeriest of seasons. I give it a B-.
The first time I tried to read One Perfect Christmas I couldn’t get through it. There was a disgruntled donkey named Reginald, a hero named Lucas wandering around his estate in the snow while walking Reginald and reading a heavy-handed missive from his mother (Lucas’s not Reginald’s), and a heroine named Lucy who loves Lucas but is determined she must marry another. I read for about fifteen minutes, realized I hadn’t registered any of what I’d read and put the book down. I’d not have bothered to give it another go had I not decided to review the collection.
The second time I tried to read One Perfect Christmas I was able to make myself finish it. I took in Lucy’s silly behavior, Lucas’s odd responses to all sorts of things including but not limited to the ass, Lucy’s declaration of love, Lucy’s declaration of non-love, and Lucas’s meddlesome mother. I realized I didn’t like Lucy, Lucas, or the ass and didn’t care if any of them ended up together. And, given that I was almost certain neither Lucy nor Lucas would wed or bed Reginald (although Lucy’s ass and Reginald are, at one point, are both grabbed by Lucas), it came as no surprise when they bedded and promised to wed each other.
I can’t recommend it, not even to those who like light sweet historicals. It’s just too dull and mundane. I give it a D.