REVIEW: Under the Mistletoe by Mary Balogh
Dear Ms. Balogh,
A Twitter conversation about romance novellas led me to borrow your Christmas anthology Under the Mistletoe from my library after author Cecilia Grant mentioned that the best novella is The Best Gift.
— Cecilia Grant (@Cecilia_Grant) October 3, 2014
I read and enjoyed the novella, then decided to purchase the book, read the other four and review this collection for Christmas. Here then, are reviews of all five novellas:
A Family Christmas
Lady Templar is aghast to hear that Mr. Chambers is coming to Wyldwood Hall for Christmas, but Elizabeth, her daughter, reminds her that Wyldwood Hall is his home. Elizabeth married Mr. Chambers a year earlier at her parents’ suggestion. His wealthy “cit” father was dying, and got her parents out of debt.
Elizabeth took a liking to Edwin Chambers’ father, and thought Edwin himself very handsome. But Edwin quickly revealed himself to be dour, morose and merely polite. The fourteen nights following their wedding embarrassed Elizabeth without satisfying her, and Jeremy left for London after those two weeks, but they produced her beloved baby, Jeremy.
Now Edwin is coming home. Elizabeth’s parents have been living with her since before she gave birth, and Elizabeth doesn’t know how to stand up to her domineering mother, who has invited the whole family for a Christmas visit. Elizabeth wants her marriage to work, but can it do so if her mother orders her husband around?
For his part, Edwin has no intention of being ordered around. It breaks his heart to live away from their son, and he wants the marriage to be closer an warmer, but he believes his wife is a beautiful, aristocratic icicle.
Elizabeth and Edwin’s Christmas begins on the wrong foot when they treat each other with cool politeness. But when Edwin announces that the family will go out the next day to gather holiday decorations for their home, and Elizabeth supports him in defiance of her mother, can they make this into a new start?
On the surface, this novella resembles one of my favorites among your novels, A Christmas Promise, which also deals with an arranged marriage between people of different classes. But A Family Christmas actually has different conflicts at its center—Elizabeth’s fear of standing up to her dominant mother and the repression her mother has fostered in Elizabeth.
This novella works well in large part because Elizabeth is so young (eighteen when she married Edwin; nineteen when the story begins) that it’s easy to understand why she doesn’t know anything different than her mother’s notions of how a lady should behave.
Edwin isn’t quite as young (he’s five years older), but still young enough that I forgave him for not having tried harder to please Elizabeth in bed during their first two weeks of marriage. It’s touching to see this couple connect for the first time a year later despite being married and sharing a child.
Although I enjoy Christmas novellas, I sometimes balk when they start telling the story of Christ’s birth, but here the nativity play scene was so sweet that I didn’t feel that way. B+.
The Star of Bethlehem
This story and I got off on the wrong foot. It begins with the line “I’ve lost the Star of Bethlehem” which is the heroine’s way of informing the hero that the diamond is missing from the ring he gave her when he asked her to marry him. We then learn that the heroine is named Estelle and this threw me because the name’s origin comes from the word “star.” It felt like heavy-handed symbolism.
Estelle and Allan, her husband of two years, almost immediately fight about where the missing diamond might be. They or their actions are described as irritable, cold, and bordering on contempt. It soon becomes evident that their marriage is on the rocks.
Allan accuses Estelle of caring only for the money and freedom being married to him provides her with. Estelle throws the male attention she gets in Allan’s face, fanning his suspicions deliberately because she wants Allan to react. To make things worse, Allan tells Estelle to go visit with her parents in the country after they come to London for the holidays.
The couple has communications issues. They only connection between them is the one that happens in the bedroom, and Estelle is sorry that she hasn’t conceived a child although she now suspects she may at last be pregnant. Estelle hasn’t told Allan—she only shares “trivialities” with him. When they’re not yelling and screeching cruel words at each other, they don’t actually talk.
Meanwhile, Nicky, a twelve year old chimney sweep who is actually part of a stealing operation, finds the missing diamond. Before he can return to his boss with the loot, Estelle discovers him. To cover his theft, Nicky cries and pretends he fears the stifling dark of the chimney. He tells Estelle other tall tales as well. Estelle takes him for a much younger child, and asks Allan to help the “orphan.”
The boy provides something of substance to communicate about and Estelle and Allan get closer. Neither really wants this Christmas to be their last together, and both separately take steps to restore Estelle’s ring, the Star of Bethlehem, to its former glory, neither realizing that the “orphan” they are sheltering is in possession of the original diamond. Can the holiday spirit repair Allan and Estelle’s marriage, as well as her ring?
Truthfully, even after reading the novella in its entirety, I’m not convinced this couple can make their marriage work. He’s possessive and jealous of her friendships with others even before she gives him any reason to be. She’s resentful of his suspicions and actually fans the flames of his jealousy. And they can’t communicate their way out of a paper bag.
Had Estelle and Allan spent most of their marriage apart like the couple in A Family Christmas I might be more likely to cut them some slack, but two years of non-communication and starting fights on purpose make for a long track record of dysfunction.
Throw in the fact that Allan is said to find it hard to talk about his feelings, but this is never really shown, plus the way twelve year old Nicky makes a fool of them, and I was left without much faith in their perceptiveness or in their ability to problem solve.
This novella felt like a mishmash of different elements that didn’t fit together well. Nicky starts out cynical and sly and he evolves too quickly. Estelle and Allan start fights for no good reason and act churlish with each other when they need to save their marriage. The O. Henry style attempts to fix the ring didn’t entirely make sense to me, either. This one gets a D/C-.
The Best Gift
Miss Jane Craggs is a teacher at a young ladies’ school but the schoolmistress and the students merely call her “Craggs.” She is treated with contempt due to her birth—no one knows who her parents are, only that a benefactor paid for her education. It is thought that she is illegitimate and that the benefactor may be her father.
Jane dreams of celebrating Christmas in a simple house decorated for the holiday, but knows it is a foolish dream. After all, she’s never celebrated Christmas in her twenty-three years of life. Who would want to invite her to such a celebration?
Viscount Buckley is forced to pick up his fifteen year old niece Deborah from the same school when his sister and her husband go to Italy for the holiday. Buckley needs a companion for Deborah and Miss Craggs, drab and gray as she is, is the only one available at such a time.
When they arrive at his country residence, they discover a little girl has been delivered there—Buckley’s four year old daughter Veronica. It seems Nancy, his former mistress, has died and the child has been left alone.
When the viscount turns to Jane for advice on how to deal with the situation, she recommends a holiday celebration, something Buckley hasn’t participated in since his fiancee threw him over for another man several years earlier.
Will the holiday spirit touch Deborah, who turns her nose up at Jane? Will it heal little Veronica, who hasn’t cried since her arrival? Will it thaw the viscount’s frozen heart? And will it bring Jane what she has always dreamed of?
This story was my reason for checking out Under the Mistletoe and it did not disappoint. It reminded me a bit of children’s books heroines like Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Match Girl (except that Jane doesn’t freeze to death in this novella, thank goodness) and Sarah Crewe in Frances Hodgson Burnett’s A Little Princess.
Like the little match girl, Jane is an outsider looking in and dreaming of warmth. Like Sara Crewe, she lives in a school where people treat her badly and yet she still allows herself to dream. Seeing Jane find joy in the holiday with three other people who like herself, have also been cast aside, brought tears to my eyes.
While the rational side of my brain says that the romance developed very fast, I wanted to see Jane and Buckley find happiness enough that I was able to suspend disbelief and wallow in the sweetness of its sentiment. B+.
Lilias has come to call on the Marquess of Bedford to ask that he repay an old debt he owed her late father. Her impoverished household has run out of money, and she must accept a position as a governess. Her younger brother and sister, Andrew and Megan, are to be sent away, the former to live with their estranged grandfather when not attending school; the latter to be placed with a great aunt.
This Christmas is last she and her siblings will spend together, and Lilias wants it to be special. She requests that the Marquess provide a Christmas goose for the family’s meal, and, when he demands to know if she wants anything else, she asks gifts for Andrew and Megan.
Bedford isn’t just an acquaintance of Lilias’ father. Before he unexpectedly came into the title, he was Stephen, the boy Lilias loved. And in the intervening years he has turned into someone else—a cold, furious stranger. When he agrees to pay his debt in the manner she requested, Lilias thanks him and leaves, telling herself that asking him was worth it.
In the intervening six years since he last saw Lilias, Bedford’s marriage to an unfaithful society beauty turned him cynical. Now widowed, he is much sought after and he therefore feels certain that Lilias made up her sad little tale to manipulate herself into his heart.
Bedford has one weakness, his four year old daughter, Dora, a sullen and morose child. The hope of lifting Dora’s spirits has brought Bedford to the countryside. He remembers past Christmases there as joyous and snowy, but this year there is only rain, Dora’s dissatisfaction and his own.
But when he calls on Lilias to let her know he has arranged for a goose and for the gifts to arrive, Dora fixes her attention on Megan and Andrew and she begs her father to allow her to stay in their humble but happy house a little longer. Bedford can deny Dora nothing, and they end up making more such visits.
Together, Bedford, Lilias, Andrew, Megan and Dora observe the traditions that Bedford remembers from his past, and his and Dora’s spirits begin to lighten. But are the five merely pretending that they belong together, playing house? Or will Bedford and Lilias realize they belong together before her family is broken up?
I have mixed feelings about this novella. On the one hand it was so emotionally affecting that I sobbed my way through quite a few tissues as a I read it. Lilias’ plight was desperate and I wanted Bedford to come around for his sake as well as her own. When I finished reading it, my impression was positive and it was only as I thought about it more that I began to take issue with it.
First, I am really not crazy about books in which the hero is cynical toward the heroine or judges her harshly based on another woman’s actions. It smacks of misogyny.
Second, the social and economic disparity between Bedford and Lilias was so great that I couldn’t really imagine her as a marchioness. She and her siblings did not even have a single servant—it appeared she did the housework herself. Her father was evidently a gentleman’s son who made a cross-class marriage and was cut off for it but we’re never told who her grandfather was. Lilias wears patched dresses and has only a dirty pinafore to offer Dora when she visits. A scene in which the marquess washes the dishes after Christmas dinner was too much for me to credit.
Third, it takes Bedford so long to come around where Lilias is concerned that the story is dependent on his lifting her from poverty, as well as on their shared past from years before, only a little of which is shown. Bedford’s personality as he presents it to Lilias isn’t his best feature. We see from his thoughts that he has a softer side, so he doesn’t lack dimension, but he does not show this side to Lilias much.
Despite these concerns, the characters appealed to me. I liked Bedford even in his “Bah, humbug!” cynicism and I liked Lilias even with her sometimes too-proud actions. I rooted for them and for the kids, and was touched by the ending. C+ for this one.
No Room at the Inn
Of all the novellas in this anthology, this one is the most unusual, because it has so many viewpoint characters and employs omniscient voice as well. The story takes place at the White Hart Inn in Wiltshire, a posting inn without claim to fame, as the narrator tells us.
It is Christmas Eve and the skies unleash a horrendous rainstorm, one that forces multiple travelers off the road. These new guests of the inn are grumpy. None of them wants to spend Christmas at a posting inn. Even the inn’s owners, Letty and Joseph Palmer, are grumpy since they do not have enough good food on hand.
Among the guests are Edward Riddings, Marquess of Lytton, a rake diverted by the weather from his trip to an assignation with a “delectable widow,” who hopes to find another bedmate among the other guests; Miss Pamela Wilder, a governess who had been traveling to her family’s house alone; Lord and Lady Birkin, a married couple estranged by his decision to keep mistresses and not burden his wife with his desires, and by her decision to keep her hurt and anger over that to herself; the Misses Amelia and Eugenia Horn, “unmarried ladies of indeterminate years,” to whom propriety is all-important, Colonel Forbes and his wife, an elderly couple; and a quiet gentleman about whom little is known.
The guests’ meager supper is interrupted when a young, unmarried couple arrives at the White Hart Inn. Tom and Lisa, the two newcomers, are impoverished, expecting a child, and in need of shelter but all the rooms at the inn are taken and so they must spend the night in the inn’s stable.
It’s easy to see where the story is going. The marquess contemplates seducing the governess, but her virginity scares him. Lord and Lady Birkin each think the other is miserable at their being forced to share a room. All are in need of some happiness, and of course, it is Christmas when Tom and Lisa’s child decides to come into the world.
Will the baby be born in the stable, or will the White Hart’s guests find a way to provide Lisa with a more comfortable place to give birth? Will there be anyone at the inn who knows how to deliver the child, or will nature take its course even if a doctor can’t be found?
I was surprised at the degree to which I enjoyed this story. We know where it’s heading, and yet getting there is so much fun. The novella doesn’t have the wordcount to delve very deeply into any of the characters, and yet most are convincing and interesting, sometimes amusing and occasionally touching.
There are flaws; Letty Palmer’s motivation could have been explained better, and the solution to Tom’s need for a job confused me. Lisa’s name threw me out a bit, too, since it’s not one I associate with the Regency era.
But I loved the story for its fairy tale feel, its Christmas magic vibe. I loved the way the characters, though given so little page space, still came alive, and the homage (though perhaps I imagined it?) to the opening of one of my favorite books, E.M. Forster’s A Room with a View. Of course, the story hearkens to the story of Christ’s birth most of all.
This novella has enough winter wonder in it that you can almost dust the snowflakes off of it, for all that it is set during a rainstorm. Because it charmed me, I give it a B+.
My overall grade for the entire anthology is a B-.