JOINT REVIEW: A Christmas Promise by Mary Balogh
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.
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Thanks for the thought provoking review! It put me in the holiday spirit here in Hot Hawaii!
@ka: You’re welcome!
This book sounds lovely you guys. Thanks for the review. I love the MOC trope and the haughty uptight hero brought down by love.
Love this book. Balogh has done lots of Christmas novellas too – which I love. There’s an excellent collection of four “Under the Mistletoe”.
I’m really enjoying this series of reviews of old Baloghs BTW.
@Jane: I hope you read it! It’s such a good book — possibly my favorite Balogh.
@Tumperkin: Thank you, I’m so glad you are enjoying them. She is such an interesting author, especially in many of her trad regencies. Those books are slim but they pack so much emotion.
I have Under the Mistletoe TBR. I’ll have to dig it out sometime.
Sunita, when you get around to reading this, I wanted to say that I really loved your observation that:
That’s so well said. Balogh hits a perfect balance between the emotions of grieving and those of celebration in this book. It’s like watching a tightrope act because there’s so much tension between these emotions, and it would have been easy for her to slip too far in either direction with this book. Instead she makes that perfect balance look effortless.
Great review! It made me want to go and buy the book but it’s geo restricted. *sobs*
Thank you! I love Christmas stories, and the fact that this includes my favourite trope – MOC – just tops it off IMHO!
I wonder if my library has it…
I had to go searching through my Mary Balogh collection to see if I’d already read (and owned) this one and, despite the fact that there are a number of Balogh books with “Christmas” in the title, I can see I haven’t – which is both good and bad – good because I have a treat in store for me when I do get my hands on it and bad because of geo restrictions.
I love Mary Balogh’s writing and some of her older categories are just plain awesome. It always amazes me that so much can be packed into such a small space and I don’t feel I’ve been short-changed or that the book should have been longer. I’m definitely looking forward to this one.
Thx for a great review ladies!
Thanks, everyone! Sorry to be late chiming in, I’m in a way different time zone at the moment.
@Janine: There’s something about Balogh’s use of inner monologues (if that’s the right term) that allows this type of balance to be really effective.
Balogh has a number of books in which the hero and heroine are antagonistic, but because of the way she writes them they are much deeper than just I-hate-you I-love-you plots. You can feel the yearning the frustration, and the mixed emotions each individual experiences, and so when they get together it’s deeply satisfying.
I am such a sucker for MOC plots; this is one of the best.
I agree with Tumperkin. Balogh has such a huge backlist. It’s nice to have someone sort through the mountain and dig out the gems.
@Vi: @Tumperkin: I’ve loved Janine’s backlist reviews of early Baloghs. I find them really interesting, because it seems as if she was finding her voice and her own style as she wrote the early ones. You see borrowings and mashups of Heyer plots, but even the more derivative books have a distinctive quality to them. She could really take the MOC plots and revenge angles and give them layers of subtlety. Sometimes they don’t work and the heroes remain unsympathetic, but when she pulls it off, the HEA is that much more powerful.
I think that A Christmas Promise is particularly successful because she combines internal and external conflicts so well in the development of the relationship.
@Lou @Kaetrin: Do you guys know about lostbooksales.com? Maybe if you register your inability to purchase the book due to geo restrictions there it will make some kind of difference.
And Kaetrin, I agree, with some of those older Baloghs, it’s impossible to feel shortchanged despite their brevity.
@orannia: I hope you find it in your library but one of the nice things about this one is that it’s back in print, so the price is reasonable.
@Vi: Thanks. I have to confess that sometimes I feel a little guilty when I review the books that are still out of print (Unlike this one, which is now back in print. Yay for that!) because I know many readers will be frustrated by the crazy prices her older OOP books go for. So I’m so glad to hear that some of our readers find those reviews helpful.
Agreed. Balogh’s characters’ internal monologue have this quality that’s different from any other author I’ve read. She captures her characters’ anxiety, embarrassment, the feeling of being trapped and the blow of having been rejected powerfully, and my theory is that it’s because (especially in her Signet regencies) she doesn’t flinch from putting her characters in difficult situations or even on occasion, showing them in a somewhat unflattering light.
And because she captures this via internal monologue we the readers are right there with the characters, sharing their acute emotions. It can be a little uncomfortable at times because the characters’ own discomfort is laid out so openly and clearly for us readers to see and experience, but when her heroes and heroines resolve their issues and their tangled emotions straighten out at the end, it’s intensely rewarding for us.
I adore MOC plots myself. Maybe we should get Jane to do an “If You Like” on marriage of convenience plots and ask for reader recommendations. When they’re well executed, I can’t get enough of them.
Yes, her voice is really unique.
I love that point. An external conflict like Wilfred showing up uninvited at the Christmas celebration affects the internal conflict of Randolph and Eleanor’s mixed feelings about each other, and that is something you see throughout the book. Both kinds of conflict mesh so well.
I read and enjoyed this book years ago. Your joint review makes me wonder if I should buy this one again. I really do love Christmas historical romances.
@Michelle Butler: FWIW, it was a great rereading experience for me. I’m really happy that it’s now available in e.
@Janine – unfortunately my library doesn’t have it, but I’m glad to hear that it is in print because if there are geographical restrictions on the eBook then I’ll be stung by that too.
Maybe we should get Jane to do an â€œIf You Likeâ€ on marriage of convenience plots and ask for reader recommendations.
Ohhhh, I like the sound of that!
Most of my responses have already been covered by others (and often said better), but I did want to comment on this. Balogh is rarely cited when people mention great sex scenes, but I think she’s one of the best at writing sex scenes that both express character and show the evolving relationship. The first scene between Eleanor and Randolph is fairly shocking — it shows how each of them feels both forced into a situation not of their choosing yet attracted despite themselves. In Balogh’s “A Temporary Wife”, Anthony tries hard to relate to Charity only on the physical level but his body betrays the increasing emotional ties he feels to her. Balogh’s H/H may not indulge in hot monkey sex on every available surface as frequently as possible, but I never skip her sex scenes. If I do, I may miss an important part of the romance, a situation which is rarer than it should be in romance novels.
@Susan/DC: I think the reason she isn’t often cited may be because her sex scenes can be both cool and hot at the same time. It’s not uncommon, as a friends of mine have pointed out, for her to use verbs like “mount” and “work” for the sexual act, or to have the hero straighten the heroine’s legs afterward. Sometimes she even mentions the wet or sucking noises of sex. It is not shown in a glamorous light, and yet I too can’t skip many of her sex scenes. I agree that she reveals character and portrays relationship evolution through sex as well as anyone in the genre.
I so agree about the sex scenes. My favourite Balogh (as anyone who knows me will attest) is the Georgian set Heartless. I think my very very favourite scene in the book is a sex scene – not because it’s o-0 sex, but because of what it says about Luke and his understanding of Anna and his (as yet unacknowledged feelings for her).
She is very upset about something, very frightened and not acting like herself. He recognises this but she won’t tell him why. Anna asks him to make love to her. He is aware that his social stickler mother is waiting with others downstairs for them both to go on a social visit. His response?
And that, right there, is why I love Luke Kendrick, Duke of Harndon.
@Susan/DC: @Janine: I agree with both of you; her sex scenes are integral to the development of the relationship, and they can tell us a lot about the hero and heroine.
I also thought of A Temporary Wife when I was reading this, because it has the same juxtaposition of Happy Families with angst and fraught relationships, and I saw similarities between the two heroes.
@Kaetrin: I haven’t read Heartless yet and it is probably better to read the scene in context, but even out of context I can see that it’s a moving moment in the book.
@Sunita: True. Another thing I enjoy about Balogh’s sex scenes is that she doesn’t always wait until the couple is in love or even like each other. Her sex scenes can be fraught with conflict.
@Kaetrin: @Kaetrin: OMG, I love that scene. It’s the perfect example of why I think Balogh is so good at what she does. And in reading your excerpt, I immediately recalled the scene leading up to that one, which is not always the case with sex scenes.
@Sunita I know! I tried to paraphrase it but realised I could not do it justice so I picked it up to quote from and found myself reading the surrounding scenes and promising myself to read the book yet again. When I want a comfort read and only have a few minutes, I pick up Heartless and start from about p227/8.
@Janine – I think you will love Heartless if Sunita’s reaction is anything to go by. It is my favourite of her’s by far. I paid a ridiculous amount for it second hand on eBay and I don’t regret a cent.
And of course there is Balogh’s “The Notorious Rake”. The hero and heroine don’t even like each other very much the first time they have sex, and the thunderstorm that surrounds them is both the catalyst for and an outward manifestation of their tumultuous coupling. I love how Balogh tells the story backward, from mindblowing sex to love, within the confines of a trad Regency.