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REVIEW: Married for Christmas by Noelle Adams

Dear Ms. Adams,

Other readers might glance at the blurb and think, “A hero who’s a preacher? Really?”

I, on the other hand, thought, “Sexy pastor, bring it on. A contemporary marriage of convenience? Yeah, right. Whatever. Good luck with that.”

Married for Christmas by Noelle AdamsAfter years of dreaming, Jessica is finally getting married, but the marriage isn’t exactly what she thought.

Daniel is her best friend, and she’s known him all her life, but he’s never gotten over losing his wife two years ago. His dream is to become the pastor of the church in their hometown, but the small-town congregation keeps balking over calling an unmarried minister. Since Daniel needs a wife and Jessica wants a husband and family, she proposes an arrangement that benefits both of them.

They can get married. They can build a life together. They can celebrate Christmas as a couple. It’s fine that he doesn’t love her. And it’s fine that she’s not exactly suited to be a small-town pastor’s wife. And it’s fine that she’s more attracted to her sexy, brooding husband every day.

Jessica can be practical about this marriage. She knows what she’s getting into, after all…

I apologize for my unvoiced and uninformed snark. This was by far the best contemporary marriage of convenience romance I’ve read, and it’s a helluva Christmas story too. (Is that blasphemous? I did my penance with all those tear-stained tissues, right?)

Married for Christmas isn’t perfect, but I didn’t even notice until about the third or fourth reading, because I was rooting for Jess and Daniel from very first chapter. Friends-to-lovers. Strong but vulnerable heroine. Quietly sexy beta hero. Angst-o-rama unrequited love resolved by Grand Gesture Groveling. Big slobbery dog. All buttons pushed.

On the surface, heroine Jessica is a bit of a mess. She sees herself as utterly ordinary (“average, forgettable, no frills”), and the few lackluster dates she’s had over the years have reinforced her belief that romance and passion are out of her league. In reality, Jess is strong and smart – she’s brilliant at her job as a web designer – but she’s so quietly capable and unwilling to draw attention to herself that she’s overlooked by nearly everyone.

The one exception to her desperate loneliness is her childhood friend (and unrequited love) Daniel. He’s a widowed pastor who longs to return to his hometown congregation, but his age and marital status are red flags to the stodgy church elders – which sets the scene for the marriage of convenience.

What makes this story work is the constant negotiation that takes over their formerly lighthearted friendship. In the first scene, he steals food off her plate and she snipes at him for rebuffing her beloved pet (“Her name is Bear. Not ‘the dog.’”) and refuses to let him try to fix her car. But once The Proposal is out there, the boundaries are completely reset – all the inherent trust of their shared history is overwhelmed by the over-analysis of every word and action. Jessica consciously rationalizes everything, refusing to acknowledge her emotions because she doesn’t want Daniel to feel obligated.

And in all its awkwardness, the negotiating continues into the bedroom. I was really impressed with how the heroine’s virginity was treated as a simple fact and not a major plot point – and how the wedding night scene evolved from hesitant suggestion…

“You can read, if you’d rather…”

“If I’d rather read than what?”

Her cheeks warmed, but she was determined to be adult and mature about this topic. “Well, I was thinking we might…we might have sex. But we really don’t have to.”

“I didn’t know if you’d want to right away.” He placed the book on the nightstand, which was an immense relief. At least he didn’t prefer Bonheoffer to having sex with her.

…to teasing banter:

“So we got all this worked out then?”

“Yeah, I think so.”

“So sex tonight?”

He nodded, a warm look in his eyes that made her shiver. “Sex tonight.”

While all that negotiating is great at showing the reader how Jess and Daniel rebuild their relationship, it’s also the source of some rather extreme emotional whiplash – hence the bump down on the letter grade. For each step forward, there’s an immediate step back. Every breakthrough is followed by a clueless remark that kills the fleeting rays of hope. It might be realistic, but both Jessica and the reader need a chance to enjoy a bit of momentum before the next crash of misunderstanding.

So – the Sexy Pastor thing. Yes, Daniel is a pastor. He writes sermons and reads Bonhoeffer in bed and wrestles with his faith. And ohhhh, yes, he’s sexy. Scruffy, brainy, beta sexy. Let’s just say he’s not a celibate priest.

Does Daniel’s profession make Married for Christmas an inspirational romance? Yes and no. According to the author’s note in the front matter:

The point of this story is not to present any sort of religious message, but because faith is important to these characters, the plot and their development turns on their spiritual condition as much as anything else. In writing a story like this, there’s likely to be too much religion for some readers and too little for others. I don’t know if I’ve navigated this challenge successfully, but I do believe it’s worth the attempt.

Goal achieved. The characters’ beliefs are an integral part of their daily lives and their relationship, but their “spiritual condition” is never beaten into the reader’s brain with self-righteous preaching or Magical Bible Verses.

Could this story have worked if Daniel was a Billionaire CEO With A Tragic Past or Navy SEAL With PTSD or some other romance hero archetype? I don’t think so. We would have gotten the requisite internal struggles over self-doubt and trust, but Daniel’s unique and highly visible role in their small community, and Jessica’s ambivalence about being the “perfect pastor’s wife,” is a much-needed source of external conflict (and humor) that keeps the story from turning into just another predictable Plain-Jane-Redeems-Manly-Man trope.

And, of course, the Sexy Pastor thing allows us to get that Gloriously Groveling Grand Gesture ending:

“Why are you panting?” she asked stupidly.

“I…ran…home.”

 Pass the tissues, please. I’m a little weepy again.

Grade: B+

~ Kelly

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Kelly

I lost my romance-reading virginity with my older sister’s Danielle Steel collection, and Judith Krantz broadened my teenage horizons in ways I’m still recovering from. My bookshelves are overflowing with history and historical fiction, my Kindle is home to everything from preachy inspirationals to extreme kink, and my wishlist is out of control. Thanks to my old-school, cigar-smoking journalism professors, I have a passion for good storytelling and zero tolerance for lazy writing. I’ll forgive nearly anything for a sappy, happy ending – but I'm not afraid to unleash the snark. [And FYI, I work part-time for a GLBTQ publisher, so I do not review any GLBTQ titles to avoid any conflict of interest.]

24 Comments

  1. Ros
    Dec 13, 2013 @ 09:10:41

    Hah. I read this last night and was planning to review it next week. I probably still will. I liked it a LOT. In fact my main criticism is that she consistently mis-spells Bonhoeffer as Bonheoffer. But I’ll take that, because, let’s face it, a romance with a mis-spelt Bonhoeffer is better than one with none at all. I want more books like this with characters whose faith is a real and plausible and important part of their lives. I liked how she showed both external church things – should Jessica join the choir? what will the Session say about changing Christmas activities? – and internal faith things – does God want us to be happy at all?

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  2. Elizabeth Langston
    Dec 13, 2013 @ 09:29:36

    I read this a couple of days after it released and I loved it. I enjoyed how faith and the business of church felt both spiritual and pragmatic. I liked how they progressed from friendship to real marriage. I loved how unapologetically sexy it was. I’m a huge fan of everything Noelle writes…and this is up in the top tier of her list.

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  3. Jess
    Dec 13, 2013 @ 11:07:41

    I haven’t seen this one yet and now I really want to read it! I got my M.A. at a divinity school so many of my friends are pastors and I’ve seen what they go through. Right out of div school, I worked for a church and, even as a youth minister, I was under a lot of pressure to get married. I’m looking forward to seeing how it is handled in this book. Thanks for the review!

    Oh and it’s only 99 cents right now? Awesome!

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  4. Jenna Burgess
    Dec 13, 2013 @ 11:12:02

    Wow this book sounds like just what I need right now. Just as a heads up, when I went over to Amazon to buy it I saw this book is currently $0.99 as a promotional price for the first couple of weeks, after its release, but the price going up to 2.99 later on.

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  5. pamelia
    Dec 13, 2013 @ 12:04:55

    This was such a lovely read. I just read it last night and I thought it was so very sweet. For some reason I love reading about clergy-member heroes. First Julie Anne Long’s “A Notorious Countess Confesses” and now this. Maybe reading “The Thornbirds” in my formative years gave me a bit of a fetish… hmmm…

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  6. Shannon C.
    Dec 13, 2013 @ 12:11:32

    Ooh, this sounds lovely. And at that price point, I’m definitely buying!

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  7. mari
    Dec 13, 2013 @ 12:15:37

    Just when I thought I was over my addiction to DA and ready to move onto other blogs, THIS appears! Wow, sounds right up my alley. Religion AND sex???!Whodda thunk it!? Thankyouthankyou for giving me exactly what I need right now. Would love to see more books like this reviewed here. :)

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  8. Emma
    Dec 13, 2013 @ 12:17:30

    And sold.

    There’s only so many good reviews I can see for a book before I have to buy it. ; )

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  9. ClaudiaGC
    Dec 13, 2013 @ 13:23:58

    @Ros: Hey, the misspelling was my main complaint, too. lol It really irked me. Authors, do your research!

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  10. Dabney Grinnan
    Dec 13, 2013 @ 13:49:57

    Great review. Thanks.

    I wasn’t wild about the last Adams I read so I was going to give this one a pass. No longer.

    Sold!

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  11. Justine
    Dec 13, 2013 @ 14:43:21

    I bought it. I read it. I enjoyed it. I recommend it.

    To say more than that would result in me writing paragraphs, so I’ll save that for when more folks have read it and can discuss it.

    (Besides Bonhoeffer, there were some copy editing errors throughout, but not enough to bother me.)

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  12. Tabs
    Dec 13, 2013 @ 15:06:05

    I really enjoyed Noelle Adams’ prior contemporary marriage of convenience story – A Negotiated Marriage.

    I’m a sucker for the contemporary marriage of convenience (especially when it can be made to be plausible) so I totally bought this one as well.

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  13. Rosa E.
    Dec 13, 2013 @ 15:56:20

    Sexy pastor, graceful-but-not-anvilicious use of faith, and friends-to-lovers? SOLD.

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  14. Deljah
    Dec 13, 2013 @ 17:08:56

    I just bought this at Amazon. I checked kobo first by clicking your link, and wow, those search results are like the anti-thesis of a romance featuring a pastor. LOL

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  15. Sandra
    Dec 13, 2013 @ 18:16:39

    I 1-clicked but think I might like your review more than the book. I really try and stay clear of books with any religious themes and I like my books with more steam than I assume this one will provide. That said, it was only .99C and it will do me good to step out of my comfort zone.

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  16. leftcoaster
    Dec 13, 2013 @ 23:09:31

    Hmmm. Really like the Adams I’ve read. Really dislike spiritual practices that want to be the boss of my body or who gets to love who. Maybe I’ll sit this one out.

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  17. Kaetrin
    Dec 13, 2013 @ 23:20:25

    Click. Sold.

    ReplyReply

  18. Ros
    Dec 14, 2013 @ 04:09:29

    @leftcoaster: I don’t think there’s anything in the book that would explicitly hit those hot buttons, to be honest.

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  19. annie
    Dec 14, 2013 @ 10:26:11

    i was really afraid this book would be preachy. But WOW..it wasnt and what a great read it was. i LOVED it. its been so long since i read a good book. thanks!! any other recs by this author?

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  20. leftcoaster
    Dec 14, 2013 @ 17:23:28

    @Ros, thanks, I’ll keep it in mind. I was brought up in a ultra fundie house so um, yeah, got buttons for miles…knee jerk ones no less.

    @annie, I really liked Bittersweet a lot, it’s another moving on after dead spouse story combined with second chance at love. For non-nauseating (to me) fluff, her It Happened One Night collection was very entertaining. Nothing crazy, but exactly what I wanted to read to relax during some stressful medical stuff happening with my 4 year old.

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  21. Nancy
    Dec 14, 2013 @ 22:08:31

    @annie: I really enjoyed A Negotiated Marriage, which is category length and also a contemporary marriage-of-convenience. It’s one of my least favorite tropes, yet Noelle Adams made it work for me. I also enjoyed Escorted, which is about a male escort, another trope that normally doesn’t do anything for me. When you look for her books, know that she writes under two different names, Noelle Adams and Claire Kent.

    I really like her voice and I’ve enjoyed the books I’ve read of hers. I’m excited to see she has a new one out that’s getting good recs. Unfortunately, I won’t be able to read it until later this week because I need to read the book for my book club.

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  22. Kim T.
    Dec 15, 2013 @ 13:58:12

    As always at this time of year, I’m looking for the perfect holiday romance. So far, I’ve enjoyed Sleigh Bells in the Snow by Sarah Morgan. Last year’s favorite was Breath of Embers by Anne Calhoun.

    When I saw this review, I was definitely a little nervous about the religious content. I’ve accumulated a few inspirational romances on my TBR shelf, but I’m still doubtful that I’ll like the genre, so never pick them up. So when I saw the author’s note, I was reassured and definitely intrigued. Being somewhat religious (in a cultural Catholic kind of way), I’m not averse to a little spirituality in my romances, but I’m always afraid of being preached to or having a bad reaction to how certain social issues are dealt with in inspirational romance plots. But as the author points out, this is not an inspirational romance, it’s a contemporary marriage-of-convenience story that just happens to have a pastor for a hero.

    Another strike against this title for me was that I’d have to read it on my Kindle and I’m still not a complete convert to e-readers, but $.99 cents is too cheap so I bought it and stayed up till 3 AM last night to finish it in one sitting. Despite the few typos (uggh…e-books!), I was swept away and a little weepy by the end of the book (and the latter rarely happens to me). Daniel and Jessica were fully developed characters with understandable motivations and desires. And, not once, did the religious content seem inappropriate to the plot or preachy. The holiday elements, both religious and secular, were also sweet. And finally, any worry I had that the romance wouldn’t have the requisite steam factor, was laid to rest pretty early. Daniel is definitely the sexiest clergyman I’ve read about or seen in a while. I’ll definitely be reading more of Adams.

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  23. LOVED IT
    Dec 16, 2013 @ 09:09:38

    This was SO good…Being in ministry myself I am so glad she shared this story. Note: Pastors have SEX! They wait until they are married (sometimes) but they have it. All the time. More importantly married sex should be written more about. Maybe if it were we would reverence it as something sacred and be more willing to not throw it away to every Tom, Dick, Louise, and Sally. She handled the spiritual issues and the story so well. I hope she continues bringing the characters in that town to life. Support her work it was SO good!

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  24. The Conversion Imperative | Emma Barry
    Feb 17, 2014 @ 00:07:13

    […] hero but otherwise did not fit inspie tropes, indicates this might be true. Take just two reviews: here and here. Both mention how the characters’ faith enhances the story, yet religion is never used […]

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