I have to admit, when I first saw the "Daddy School" label on the cover of Tis the Season, I groaned aloud. Surely this book would be filled with unbelievably precocious children and a macho father who makes a miraculous turnaround in the last three pages of the book thanks to a too-good to be true woman. Fortunately, I was quite wrong.
Evan Myers is a divorced man trying to juggle a highly successful sporting good chain and his two young children. It's hard enough to do normally, but during the hectic holiday retail blitz it borders on the impossible. Evan has to resort to sending his secretary to pick up his five-year-old daughter Gracie at daycare, and his eight-year-old son Billy is locked into a never-ending string of after-school programs. The situation is making Evan feel like a failure as a father, and a phone call from the preschool principal suggesting he enroll in the "Daddy School" doesn't help that image at all. Evan realizes he needs help, but he isn't sure how or whom to ask.
Enter Filomena Albright. Filomena, a bohemian grad student from Columbia, has just lost her mother. Adding to her grief is the fact that her mother has left behind an enormous debt, one too great for a PhD candidate to handle. Filomena's only choice is to sell her childhood home in Arlington, Connecticut. The house needs some work, after five years of vacancy, so Fil decides to spend the few months before the New Year getting the house ready for sale. On her first day home, she realizes that her house has attracted someone already, namely Gracie and Billy Myers.
Thinking the old house is haunted, the two children peep into the windows to see some spirits and come face to face with Filomena. Although they first think she's a witch, the children warm up to the free-spirited Fil. When Evan meets Fil, he soon realizes his children's first impression wasn't that far off, as he is bewitched by the dark haired woman. He offers her the job of watching the children and Filomena accepts, thinking this is just the thing to distract her from her otherwise unpleasant task in Arlington. Both of them are soon more distracted by each other and wonder if the magic of the Season will last.
Judith Arnold has a wonderful way of writing perfect balance in her characters. Evan is a caring father without being too much of a "sensitive New Age guy" and a tough businessman without being all business. The same is true of the children. I read romance novels for a love story, not to be hit over the head by ever-so-cute children, and Tis the Season hits the mark. The Myers children are around just enough to get a glimpse of an alternative viewpoint (through the eyes of Billy) but are never constantly underfoot. Also, they are realistically portrayed for their ages. My only complaint was the repeated use of the two children "bolting from the table" and "fighting over the TV remote". It didn't have to happen after every meal.
Also, though I really enjoyed the character of Filomena, I thought her easy acceptance of domestic life as a nanny was a bit out of character. She reads tarot, dresses like a gypsy and is a "starving" grad student. The sole reason for her comfort around children was that she was writing her thesis about Children's Literature. It was strange that she would be so content to settle down with a man with two kids so fast.
What particularly pleased me about this story was the treatment of Evan's ex-wife. Not a lot of time is spent on her (after all, who wants to think about the ex in a romance novel) but I was impressed by how Arnold dealt with the issue of Evan's wife abandoning her husband and young children to run off with a baseball star. Evan takes his share of the blame and harbors no bitterness. This was a refreshing change from the "one woman wronged me - I can never love again" conflict typical to other books.
There is also something of a subplot between Evan's WASPy vice president Jennifer and Tank Moody, an African-American football star who is doing a publicity tour for the store. It was not very interesting and very predictable. The minute Jennifer was forced to take Tank on one of his tour stops due to Evan's family commitments I knew they'd get together. The relationship was just a convenient way to get the back story on Evan's first marriage. Still, it was a minor smudge on an otherwise very enjoyable book.
Tis the Season was a pleasant surprise, and made me want to read some of Judith Arnold's earlier "Daddy School" books.