A Christmas Bride

The Gifts of Christmas

Indiscreet

Irresistible

The Last Waltz

More Than a Mistress

No Man's Mistress

One Night for Love

A Regency Christmas Carol

Silent Melody

Slightly Married

Slightly Scandalous

Slightly Wicked

A Summer to Remember

The Temporary Wife

Thief of Dreams

Truly

Unforgiven

 
Under the Mistletoe
by Mary Balogh
(New American Library, $12.95, PG) ISBN 0-451-20978-8
*****
I started to consider what rating to give Under the Mistletoe then remembered that actions speak louder than words. Assigning a rating to Under the Mistletoe is a no-brainer – I’ve already essentially given this book keeper status four times before!

Beginning in 1989, Signet has published an annual Regency Christmas anthology, and for ten straight years, Mary Balogh contributed one story. In my opinion, year in and year out the stories written by Mary Balogh, Carla Kelly, and Edith Layton stood out above the rest. I have all ten of those anthologies tucked away along with the full-length Regency Christmas novels Ms. Balogh wrote – in other words, keepers every one. In 1999 the annual anthology was issued without a story by Ms. Balogh, and it just hasn’t been quite the same ever since.

Now after a short hiatus, this highly respected author has returned to the Christmas theme – one new story, four earlier stories reissued in this all-Balogh anthology. The new story is possibly the best of all five. This book will be joining its predecessors on my shelves.

For me, a well-done Christmas story requires more than a rosy-cheeked heroine and a hunky hero frolicking in the snow and exchanging kisses under a kissing bough. I want a deeper, spiritual message underlying the romance – something a little more meaningful than boy meets girl in December. Mary Balogh never forgets that Christmas is a religious holiday, and her romances never suffer from sharing the focus.

The new story is “A Family Christmas” in which the victims of an arranged marriage have a second chance at Christmastime. Elizabeth married Edwin Chambers, the son of a wealthy merchant, to save her parents, Lord and Lady Templar, from the debt amassed through their extravagance. She and Edwin had only two weeks together following their wedding before his father’s death required him to go to London to manage the business. Elizabeth’s parents arrived when she gave birth to their son Jeremy and have settled in. Her mother thoroughly dominates her meek daughter and treats the house as her own.

Lady Templar is upset when Elizabeth receives word that her husband is arriving for Christmas. She has invited a large number of family members to visit over the holiday. She considers Edwin an embarrassment even though it is his house and she has benefitted from her daughter’s marriage.

Over the next few days Edwin and Elizabeth will have a chance to repair their damaged relationship.

One delight of this story is the gradual unfolding revelation that Lady Templar’s opinion of Edwin is dead wrong. The timid, love-starved Elizabeth is a sympathetic character, but her lack of assertiveness makes it sometimes hard to respect her.

The plot revolves around that old cliche, the Big Misunderstanding. In this case, however, the hero and heroine have a reason for their lack of communication. They started out with misconceptions of each other, and married a full year, they’ve scarcely spent any time together.

This story is only fifty pages long but feels longer. It’s satisfyingly rich in all those aspects that make for a good story: character development, atmosphere, conflict, resolution. It reminded me all over again why I think Mary Balogh’s Christmas stories are superb.

“The Star of Bethlehem” is the story of a married couple, Lord and Lady Lisle, whose marriage is on the brink of collapse. When the Lady Lisle’s diamond disappears and a young chimney sweep comes into their lives, husband and wife rediscover each other.

In “The Best Gift” the heroine Jane Craggs is a young teacher at a girls’ school. She is asked to escort one of her pupils to her uncle’s home for Christmas. When the uncle’s illegitimate little daughter arrives unannounced, Jane has a chance to create the dream Christmas of a lifetime and in the process brings healing to some wounded hearts.

“Playing House” is the story of a small family about to be separated for life. Lilias, the elder sister, comes to her one-time sweetheart, the Marquess of Bedford, asking for one last perfect Christmas for her orphaned brother and sister. Bedford has a daughter of his own who in spite of her father’s wealth needs the joy of this season just as much as the poor children do.

The final story, “No Room at the Inn,” showcases the author’s facility at managing multiple characters in a short story format. Several travelers are stranded by bad weather at an isolated inn. Christmas will take on new meaning for all of them when a homeless young couple arrives, the young woman heavy with child.

If you haven’t had the seasonal pleasure of Mary Balogh’s Christmas stories in past years, Under the Mistletoe will be a real treat for you. For those of us who have loved her stories for a long time, this anthology is a must-buy. I’m sure I’m not the only one to have my fingers crossed that this isn’t an isolated event and that we’ll be enjoying another new Christmas story by her next year.

--Lesley Dunlap


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