Just for the heck of it, I decided to pick a totally random contemporary Christmas themed romance to review. With great difficulty I resisted such titles as His Christmas Virgin, Inheriting His Secret Christmas Baby, and, my favorite title, Eating Cookie. I settled on Holiday Affair – but sadly, Holiday Affair is like lukewarm cocoa with way too many marshmallows in it.
At first it looks OK, and it has its fun moments, but ultimately it’s unsatisfying and may cause you to throw up. In short, I did not care for this book. Why, you ask? Well, I’ll tell you why. It was saccharine, it was cliché, and it was totally unbelievable. Mild spoilers and a long, long rant about too much sentimentality during the holidays lies ahead.
The book starts out well. Plumley paints an all-too accurate picture of the Christmas season in suburban San Diego. Tragically, the heroine, Karina, is kind of a snob (she vows never to date another 'dork') She is also one of those heroines who is described as “caring” but could more accurately be described as “an infuriating doormat”. I like protagonists who are caring and empathetic and who enjoy fixing problems, but Karina is obsessed with making sure that not only is everyone around her happy, but that they are happy with her specifically. When she can’t fix problems, she settles for pretending that they aren’t serious. For instance, she refers to her oldest son’s kleptomania as his “borrowing” problem. Since she has no other significant personality traits, she is a caricature whom I constantly wanted to smack, instead of an interesting character whose virtues are balanced by her flaws.
Karina’s most pressing problem is that she is determined to provide her three children with a perfect post-divorce Christmas. Luckily, her sister lands her an eight day long secret evaluator gig at a bed and breakfast known as “The Christmas House”. This establishment (which shall henceforth be known as TCH) sounds great for one chapter or so, but then the full magnitude of the unrelenting cheer kicks in. Among the many things I did not believe about this story was that anyone would willingly stay at this place for more than a day. A day would be heaven. A week and I’d hang myself with the Christmas lights. I love Christmas, I really do, but would YOU want to listen to recorded carols all day for a week? There are scheduled events all day, every day, at TCH. Sleigh rides and cookie decorating and holiday movie viewing and cider mixers, and it NEVER STOPS. Even the bed sheets have Christmas patterns on them.
So, Karina the Doormat Divorcee goes to play spy at TCH, where she meets Reid. Those of you who thought that Karina’s aversion to dorks would be a piece of ironic foreshadowing are wrong. Reid is an alpha male who travels the world with his miraculously reliable, and conveniently disposable, nanny who homeschools his two daughters in a succession of tents as he gallivants from country to country. His grandparents, the owners of TCH, ask him to come home and save TCH from failing an exam by the secret evaluator (Karina, remember?) so they can sell the place and move to Arizona. High jinks ensue, along with many, many repetitions of the phrase, “Christmas is magical”.
The biggest problem with this book is that everyone acts wildly inconsistent as the story gets more and more syrupy. Even things that start out believably, like Karina’s kids’ emotional problems following the divorce, are resolved implausibly. I like sentiment. I don’t like sticky fake corny goo, especially when it comes as a result of every single character, including the extras, acting like real people do not. I don’t want to dole out too many spoilers, but the final forty pages of the book were a blizzard of WTF. This explosion of WTF followed a long, tedious build-up of WTF, so it’s not like the book was working just fine and then suddenly crashed. I knew the end would be irritating because the whole book was irritating, but I was outraged by the blatantly fake final resolution.
All of this might be forgivable if Reid and Karina were remotely believable as a couple. But, they aren’t. Can I buy that they like each other? Sure. Can I buy that they go from saying hello to HEA in eight days? Nope. Much exposition is devoted to establishing Reid as a free spirit who doesn’t want to live in one place. Reid actually divorced his wife, a botanist, because she asked him to accompany her from one research site to the next, and that was too much like settling down for him to tolerate. There’s nothing so compelling about his relationship with Karina to suggest that he would suddenly opt to live permanently in San Diego.
Similarly, Karina is cautious, recently divorced, and devoted to her children. There’s no reason to believe that she would make the kind of commitment to Reid that she makes in such a short time. They have very few conversations of any depth. They don’t work through any problems except the one about Karina being a spy. The challenges of having a blended family, let alone one from such disparate backgrounds and parenting philosophies are barely alluded to. They have nothing in common, nor do their differences balance them in any amazing way. Their entire relationship consists of a warm but tenuous friendship and the magical power of hot casual sex.
The best Christmas stories have tension to further the plot but also to balance the sentiment. Plumley sets up several conflicts, but immediately drops them. For instance, Reid describes himself a “Scrooge” kinda guy. Because of his travels, he never celebrates Christmas, and his daughters, despite constant access to the Internet, don’t even know what a Christmas tree is (insert reviewer eye-roll here). Having a character who hates Christmas could have been great. The problem is that Reid likes TCH and its activities from the start. He never does dislike Christmas; he just hasn’t been in a position to celebrate it traditionally for a long time. Not one gruff or snarky comment escapes his manly lips. Hence, no conflict. More serious potential conflicts, like those between Karina and Reid regarding protective versus permissive parenting, are either ignored completely or resolved in a single conversation.
The lack of realistically explored tension in the story makes it cloying instead of pleasantly sweet. It also deprives the characters of opportunities to grow. In a great romance, both characters learn something from their association with each other, and become better people as a result of their romantic partnership. I’m sorry, but abruptly deciding that you want to settle down based on a few nights of sex and the heroine’s ability to engage in girl talk with your children isn’t growth, it’s glaring manipulation by the author. Meanwhile, Karina says she is finally making choices for herself, instead of living for other people, but she doesn’t have to deal with the consequences since everyone approves of her choice. Since she never has to stand up for herself, her “character growth” is unsubstantial and unsatisfying for the reader.
As far as I can tell, there is simply no excuse for Lisa Plumley to write a rotten book. Her sentences are well constructed, she’s very good at descriptions, and there are some suggestions of real poignancy and even thoughtful dialogue here and there, most notably about how much parents should build their lives around their children and how much they should live for themselves. I laughed at the pajama pants habit that both Reid and Karina share, to the horror of their children. The character of Chelsea, Karina’s ex’s new girlfriend, is fun in unexpected ways. I also enjoyed the detail that the evil ex took all the family Christmas ornaments with him when he moved out. Anyone who can come up with such a petty, yet devastating, act of villainy is surely capable of writing great things. Sadly, Plumley seems driven to undercut her every advantage by using stock characters, easy fixes, gooey sentiment, and infuriatingly implausible plot twists.
Dear Bitches, if you want some Christmas Cheer, have some nice eggnog and gingerbread and curl up reading Miracle by Connie Willis, or her novella All Seated on the Ground, or How the Grinch Stole Christmas, or A Christmas Carol, (the original Dickens version, of course). These books are wildly different but they share a common message that Christmas is, well, magical, and that people are capable of great good. They are full of sentiment, but they aren’t sticky. The characters behave in understandable ways. The characters change, sometimes literally overnight, but their growth is made believable by the authors. Also, there’s a lot of edge to these works that helps keep the sentiment from cloying. Holiday Affair was just too relentlessly cheery for me.