Zebra, $6.99, ISBN 0-8217-7772-6
Contemporary Romance, 2004
It’s Christmas in Romance Novel Land, and that means the sickly sweet lonely children, heroines with maternal instincts set to “Hysterical”, and heroes looking for babysitters for their children are out in full force. Wait, how is that different again from any ordinary day in Romance Novel Land? Hmm, I have to think about that one. In the meantime, the Christmas anthology Jingle All the Way is a collection of four very different stories, united only by the shared desire to spread the good word of capitalism come Yuletide.
Let me put it simply: the only reason to read this anthology is Jane Blackwood’s Maybe This Christmas. Yes, it’s a short story but egads, it is also a near-extinct example of storytelling: here, emotions are complicated, nobody is really in the right and wrong, and in the end, love can flourish again only after everyone has forgiven each other and start anew. Jane Blackwood returns to her Jane Goodger roots with this novella, which is sort of a time-travel thing.
Homeless and bitter Laura Randall spends Christmas Eve in the hospital. She doesn’t know whether she’s dying or not but she does know that she has plenty of regrets. Her marriage broke apart twenty years ago when her losing the baby she was carrying sent her into a downward spiral that drove her husband and her children away from her. When the woman next to her persuades her to voice out whether she wishes that she can turn back time and change things, she gets sent back to the time when she was still married to Brian, her children still didn’t hate her, and she may have a chance to pull through and change her life. The clock is ticking though. Brian is seriously considering divorcing her after having to endure her drunken sprees and worse for years. In a few days time, it will be Christmas, the day when Brian shows her the divorce papers. She will have to act fast.
While the extent of Laura’s destructive behavior is rarely expounded on, probably because of the lack of space, the author manages to create characters that aren’t fully sympathetic as much as they are human beings trying to do the best things but sometimes things don’t work out that way. Laura has no one to blame but herself but Ms Blackwood isn’t interested in pointing fingers or painting her characters in stark black and white. Brian isn’t a complete angel either although he is far more patient with Laura than he should be. Like I said, he and Laura are realistic characters who sometimes do the wrong things without meaning to. Ms Blackwood is more interested in forgiveness and healing. This story makes the effort to depict realistic human emotions without taking the easy way out by demonizing other people or trivializing the issues between the main characters. Even the woman Brian is considering a relationship with after he has left Laura isn’t some evil slut as much as someone who actually has feelings for Brian.
The only downside to this story is that Ms Blackwood doesn’t stop the story after the confrontation between Laura and Brian about their future. That one is a simple, understated, but very well-written scene. If the story ends there, it will be perfect. Alas, the author pads in some cutesy Christmassy chapters after that scene, scenes that are too sweet to ring real as they are too sanguine after all the turbulent emotions that ran high between Brian and Laura, and these scenes dilute the effect of the scene between Brian and Laura. Still, Maybe This Christmas is a superb, poignant, and romantic short story that tries to do so much more than many full-length novels out there. The fact that Ms Blackwood succeeds very well in doing so much more is a wonderful kind of bliss in itself.
Linda Lael Miller’s The 24 Days of Christmas is the next best story so let me touch on that one next. This is a simple story of two ex-lovers Frank Hutton and Addie Hutton who have moved on – and lost – with other people. When Addie moves back to town after her journalism career didn’t turn out so well and her ex-husband dumped their son Henry on her, she meets Frank again. Frank is now a widower with a daughter to raise. Gee, I wonder where they will all go from there. The children are way too cutesy and they talk too much like adults trying to project child-like innocence, but otherwise, the story gallops leisurely to a pleasant happy ending. Addie is a wonderful heroine in that she comes off as human (and if you have read as many one-note “Must mother kiddies because I’m such a wonderful heroine that way!” heroines as I have, Addie’s down-to-earth and so-normal attitude about her ex, people in general, love, and men will be a welcome relief) while Frank’s ability to love again without denouncing his love for his late wife or comparing the two women is nice. Addie and Frank come off as two likeable and down-to-earth very nice people (instead of stereotypical “hot cop” or “city girl awaiting rustication” characters designed solely to populate a romance novel) falling in love again and I can’t help thinking that love can’t happen to two nicer people.
Theresa Alan, a chick-lit author, offers Santa Unwrapped. Aimee Lachaussé’s love story with wheelchair-bound Ryan is something I don’t come across everyday but unfortunately, this story suffers from really horribly awkward pacing. It is late in the story when both characters come off as almost two-dimensional when they finally address Ryan’s insecurities regarding his wheelchair-bound state but for too long, this story has Aimee whining and complaining and disliking everything like some chick-lit heroine gone amok while the story crawls at an agonizing pace as it tries to detail every minute feeling and action of Aimee. The result is an endlessly complaining and humor-free heroine. I don’t know what Ryan sees in her.
And finally, Fern Michaels closes the story with A Bright Red Ribbon. It is actually a reissue of her contribution to the anthology from 2000 called Five Golden Rings. The other three stories are new but Ms Michaels’ story is a reissue. Yes, I can now skip reading this utterly, abnormally stupid story, direct anyone who is interested to find out what I think about A Bright Red Ribbon to the review of Five Golden Rings, and happily tell everyone to check out Jane Blackwood’s story from this anthology. You don’t have to buy the anthology, just borrow it or read the story at the bookstore or something, because that story is really too nice to be ignored just because it’s packed in an uneven anthology designed to cash-in on the holiday season. Just do it or I hear Santa Claus will really cry.