Under the Mistletoe, by Mary Balogh

>> Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Under the Mistletoe reprints four of Mary Balogh's old Christmas stories and adds a new one. I'm sure longtime Balogh fans who always made sure to buy the anthologies containing her short stories aren't happy to have to buy an entire book to get only one new story, but not having read any of them, it works for me! And at least the fact that four of the stories are old is stated right there on the front cover!

The new story is A Family Christmas, and it was one of my favourites. It tells the story of a couple who have been married for a year, have a four-month-old son, and have actually been in each other's company for no more than a few days.

Aristocratic Elizabeth married Cit Edwin Chambers because her family made it clear she must do so to improve the family's failing fortunes. As for Edwin, he married Elizabeth because his father wanted him to marry an aristocrat. Or, at least, that's why each thinks the other went into the marriage.

Two weeks after their Christmas wedding Edwin's father died, and after going to the funeral, Edwin went back to town alone, leaving the pregnant Elizabeth at their country estate. The only other time they saw each other was for a week after the birth, and all those meetings took place in the presence of Elizabeth's mother.

As the story starts, it's Christmas again, and Elizabeth's parents are still at her estate, and her mother, especially, has taken over her life. When Edwin decides to spend Christmas with his wife and son, Elizabeth will have to decide if she can be corageous enough to confront her mother and take her life back.

I was surprised at how much I liked this story. It's got two things that I didn't think were going to work for me: Elizabeth's passiveness in letting her mother completely dominate her and the fact that the only reason Elizabeth and Edwin are estranged is miscommunication and misunderstandings. Well, it all worked fine.

I completely understood Elizabeth's behaviour, as a product of her upbringing and a continuation of her trying to be what her mother always raised her to be. Given that, seeing her slowly begin to take control of things was wonderful. I especially liked that there weren't any loud, spectacular scenes, because that would have been out of character for her. She simply quietly asserted her will.

As for the situation between Elizabeth and Edwin, again, it was all perfectly understandable. Considering the circumstances surrounding their wedding and how very little they knew each other, it made sense that they would believe as they did of each other. And given that, it made sense that neither would dream of putting their real feelings out there. I loved seeing how they slowly began to see glimmers of the real persons behind the façades they saw, and I thought their romance was really sweet.

My grade for this story would be a B+.

The Star of Bethlehem is the oldest of the stories. It was originally published in the A Regency Christmas anthology in 1989.

We have another marriage-in-trouble story here, but it's one that's very different from the first story in the anthology. Estelle and Allan married for love, but that wasn't enough to make a happy marriage. Allan's jealousy and Estelle's flirtatious nature didn't mix very well, and after a few years, every exchange between them seems to end either in a fight, passionate lovemaking or (most usually) both.

As the story starts, Estelle and Allan are on the brink of becoming officially estranged, when Estelle's loss of their original engagement ring, and their rescue of a young chimney sweep (who isn't the perfect angel he seems to be) act as catalysts to Estelle and Allan becoming close again.

I quite liked this story. The plot is fun and the characters are interesting, and even when their relationship is at its worst, you never lose sight of the fact that they do love each other very much. However, I wasn't completely convinced that they'd managed to fix the issues that had come between them in the first place. I never got the feeling Allan's compulsive jealousy had completely gone away. Still, I was hopeful that they'd be ok, so I'm rating this story a B.

The third story is The Best Gift, from the A Regency Christmas VI anthology, first published in 1994.

When Viscount Buckley's sister and her husband decide at the last moment to spend Christmas in Italy, they stick him with their 15-year-old daughter, even thought they know he makes a point not to celebrate Christmas at all. Since he has no idea what to do with his niece, finding her some sort of companion seems like a good idea. So when he goes to pick her up from her school, he asks the headmistress if there are no other students or teachers who will be remaining there and would be willing to spend Christmas with them. There is: Jane Craggs, and she's very happy to go. An illegitimate daughter, supported by her aristocratic father until she was old enough to earn her own way, Jane has never been part of a Christmas celebration. But when they arrive at the house only to find Lord Buckley's illegitimate daughter waiting for him, after the death of her actress mother, Jane acquires a mission: to save her from a fate as lonely as Jane's.

This one wasn't my favourite. I never really warmed up to Jane, who seemed very nondescript to me. I get it that she was supposed to be that way at first, having had to hide inside herself all her life, but even when her personality was supposed to be emerging and making Lord Buckley fall in love with her, she remained just as grey and drab to me. What I did like, very much, was the thread about Veronica, Buckley's illegitimate daughter. I found the love growing between Buckley and Veronica much more convincing and affecting than the one between him and Jane. A B-.

Fourth comes Playing House. This one was originally published in the A Regency Christmas II anthology, back in 1990.

Stephen, Lord Bedford, has returned to his family estate after some 6 years' absence and an unhappy marriage which has given him a daughter he's not even sure is his. His first visitor is the person he most looked forward to seeing, his first love, Lilias Angove. But Lilias isn't there just to say hello. Her family was left with nothing after her father's death, and this is the last Christmas before she has to go to a governess post and separate from her young brother and sister. She wants their last Christmas together to be memorable, so she asks Stephen to repay an old debt and give them a goose and presents for the children, a request Stephen interprets as Lilias trying to make him feel sorry for her and ask her to marry him.

This was a good one. Lilias wasn't really particularly interesting (too much of a perfect, innocent, virtuous woman, incapable of asking for anything for her, but willing to risk humiliation so that her brother and sister can have a nice Christmas, yadda, yadda, yadda), but I just adored Stephen's internal dialogue, the way he started out cynical and resentful, only to slowly start wanting to believe in Lilias, and then doing so. The ending was beautiful, and so was the atmosphere of classic white Christmas. A B+.

No Room at the Inn comes last, and it was not a particularly successful close for the anthology. This is a story which was originally published in the A Regency Christmas V anthology in 1993.

Rather than concentrating on a single couple, No Room at the Inn ambitiously tries to knit together multiple storylines. It's a couple of days before Christmas, and the rain is pouring down and making the roads impassable, with the result that a number of people who were travelling to different places for Christmas find themselves stuck at an extremely unprepossessing inn.

There's the young governess going home to spend the holidays and the rake who sees her as potential prey (he was going to a house party and refuses to allow this Christmas to be a loss, carnally!); there's the young estranged married couple; there's the older married couple; there are the two spinster sisters travelling together; there's the single, mysterious man no one knows anything about and finally, there's the poor young man and his unmarried pregnant girlfriend, who's about to give birth in the stable.

Some of those storylines had potential, but there just wasn't space enough for development here. The governess and the rake story was ridiculously underdeveloped, and while the thread about the young, estranged couple did have a bit more substance, I hated that the man had been keeping mistresses for years. The other storylines were pretty much ignored. And then the was the birth in the stable thing, which I thought was much too heavy-handedly preachy. This one was a C for me.

No perfect stories here, but I did get a couple of extremely enjoyable ones and two which were pretty good. With only one story that failed, this was a good anthology. A B.


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