This is my fourth and last review for
The Christmas Spirit Reading Challenge,
which runs from November 21, 2011
through January 6, 2012!
Please click on the link in my sidebar
for the rules, as well as
a complete list of participating bloggers.
Title: Under The Mistletoe
Author: Mary Balogh
Format: Mass Market Paperback, 352 pages
Publication Date: October 3, 2006
(first published 2003)
Genres: Christmas Romance, Regency Romance, Historical Romance
Reading a Mary Balogh book, whether a novel or a collection of novellas, is always a great delight! Her characters are always interesting, passionate, with sprinkles of humor, as well as very realistically depicted. Her plots and settings, although well within the conventions of romance fiction, are still refreshingly appealing. In short, I can open any book with her name on the cover, and know, even before reading the first sentence, that I will enjoy the entire book. It will most likely move me to tears in places, while provoking chuckles in others, as well as an occasional rip-roaring laugh. One thing for sure -- I will not once be tempted to stop reading. Instead, I will do everything I possibly can to read said book from cover to cover, with whatever lighting or time restrictions happen to be available at the moment.
This collection of Christmas-themed novellas is definitely a keeper, and I can't recommend it highly enough! Each story is a beautifully-faceted gem, one not to be missed, but instead savored like the finest coffee, or perhaps the finest English tea, since these stories take place in merry old England.
The first one, "A Family Christmas", deals with an arranged marriage, a rather common practice in the Regency period. However, the story begins after the couple in question, Elizabeth and Edwin Chambers, have been married for two years. Since they never got to know each other very well before the ceremony, they have been little more than strangers to each other. All this changes, however, during one truly magical Christmas, when Edwin Chambers decides to let down his guard, and enter into the full spirit of the season, despite the blatant disapproval of Lady Templar, his curmudgeon of a mother-in-law. The result is that the "love at first sight" they first experienced bursts into bloom, deepening into a lasting union.
The second story, "The Star of Bethlehem" has a truly unique plot, although I can detect the influence of that great storyteller, O. Henry, not only in the events described, but also in the personalities of the main characters. There's also a bit of Dickens thrown in for good measure. Nevertheless, Balogh tells her own type of tale here, and a very touching one it is, too.
The story of Estelle and Allan, the Earl and Lady of Lisle, might have ended very differently had they not met Nicky, a young chimney sweep's apprentice, who happens to slide down Estelle's bedroom chimney one night. The boy's life changes, as well, since Estelle, filled with compassion, persuades her husband to take him in as a hired servant. Unbeknownst to her, Nicky has 'found' her lost engagement ring...
Needless to say, this marriage, too is rejuvenated during the Christmas season!
Although all of the novellas included in this volume are beautiful and very special, I believe the most beautiful and special one of all is "The Best Gift". Interestingly, this story is also included in a collection I reviewed recently, titled A Regency Christmas VI, so I won't give the plot details here. I have already given it five stars in my review of that book. It is an incredible jewel!
In "Playing House", two childhood friends are reunited, although both have changed, buffeted as they have been by suffering. Stephen, the Marquess of Bedford, has been very bitter since the death of his father and brother in different European wars. He is also the veteran of a loveless marriage, which ironically gave him a daughter, Dora, whom he loves as deeply as her late mother detested her.
Not long before Christmas, Lilias, his childhood friend and teenage sweetheart, now impoverished, visits him for the purpose of requesting that he provide her with three things, in order to settle an old 'debt' owed to her late father. The three things are a goose for Christmas dinner, a doll for her little sister, Megan, and a silver watch for her little brother, Andrew. She wants to give them a memorable holiday because they will soon be parted, and might never see each other again...
Of course, events and children alike throw them together a bit too often, and the Christmas spirit does the rest!
The last story, "No Room at the Inn", takes some inspiration from the well-known tale of the birth of the baby Jesus. However, there are other characters having nothing to do with the main story, who still take center stage.
A group of grumpy travelers is stranded at a nondescript country inn, while rain pours continually outside, making further travel along the muddy roads as impossible as if it had snowed. All of the travelers, unwilling guests at an inn with rather bad food and worse ale, ceaselessly complain about the unrelenting rain, wishing they were at the merry gatherings of friends and family for the great holiday.
There's another strained marriage in this story, which is, of course, renovated in the end. There are also a virginal clergyman's daughter, and a rather cynical, bored rake (this is what a 'playboy' or 'player' was called, in those days), who feel a powerful attraction to each other... There are two unmarried, middle-aged sisters, as well as a rather happy older couple. And there is someone who is initially known merely as 'the quiet gentleman'.
All these people come to find the true meaning of Christmas in the absence of all the trappings -- the decorations, the food, the gifts, the festive dancing. And all because, on Christmas Eve, the very night of their arrival at the inn, a young, poor couple arrives, as well. The young woman is heavy with child, and will soon go into labor. The young man is looking for work. They are unmarried, and...there is no room at the inn. The innkeeper suggests the stable...
I love the way Balogh weaves the theme of the true Christmas spirit into each of these stories! She does not, as other writers might have, merely use Christmas as a pretty backdrop to these tales. Instead, she makes it an integral part of each story. In each one, the characters feel the impact of the holiday's messages of love, hope, peace, and the great joy to be found in giving from the heart. Each character changes in a major way because of the beauty of these messages.
As I prepare to enter a New Year, I do so with the warmth of these beautiful tales stored in my memory. I might just read them again next year! (And who knows? Maybe before Christmas comes around again!)
Where To Buy: Amazon, Barnes & Noble