This Christmas by Jane Green, Jennifer Coburn & Liz Ireland
(Zebra, $6.99, G) ISBN 0-8217-7806-4
**
It’s that time of year again (late October?) to usher in the holiday spirit with Christmas romance anthologies. Unfortunately, This Christmas failed to put me in the mood. Two of the three stories left me cold, but Liz Ireland’s contribution warmed my soul as effectively as a mug of hot chocolate and chestnuts roasting on an open fire.  

Popular British author Jane Green starts off the anthology with “Vacation,” a can-this-marriage-be-saved saga. Sarah and Eddie Evans have two beautiful children, a lovely home in the suburbs, and, after eight years, a failing marriage. Once the couple loved every minute they spent together. Now Sarah resents the fact that Eddie comes home late from the office and ignores the kids, eschewing cooking and chores for watching TV and drinking beer. Eddie wishes Sarah would stop bugging him – she should appreciate his hard work that supports their family. When Eddie is offered a job assignment in Chicago, Sarah suggests that the couple consider it a “vacation” from their marriage.  

This story highlights the not-so-earth shattering message that marriage requires work, especially when there are kids involved. There’s also a reminder that you have to be happy with yourself in order to have a happy marriage. The plot is predictable and unsurprising, despite Green’s trademarked wry omniscient narrator, and the abrupt ending deprives the reader of any romantic satisfaction.  

“The Second Wife of Reilly” is an odd little story courtesy of Jennifer Coburn. Sarah O’Shaugnessay (couldn’t these authors have coordinated their efforts so their heroines wouldn’t have the same first name?) is happily married to Reilly but can’t help worrying about his ex-wife Prudence, who is still very much single. Although Prudence has never displayed any regret about losing Reilly, Sarah decides she is a threat that must be neutralized. And the easiest way to get Prudence out of the picture is to find her a new husband.  

Strangely enough, Coburn’s first novel, The Wife of Reilly, started this harebrained scheme when a very married Prudence encountered her college boyfriend at a reunion and decided to find a new wife for Reilly so she would be free to divorce him without guilt. Why Ms. Coburn thought this far-fetched plot would work more than once is a mystery to me. Sarah, a very controlled and careful woman, eventually realizes that her frantic quest to match up Prudence and eliminate this imagined threat is a way to avoid very painful and real memories. The story’s I Love Lucy-type hijinks are awkwardly combined with Sarah’s near nervous breakdown into something that is neither funny nor moving.  

If the first two stories in the anthology are more about finding yourself than finding Mr. Right, Liz Ireland’s “Mistletoe and Holly” almost saves the day by providing pure romance pleasure. Holly Ellis (thank god her name is not Sarah!) usually views the holiday season with trepidation, knowing that her parents and two siblings consider her to be a classic underachiever. Her family’s Norman Rockwell type Christmas celebrations, complete with cute matching Santa sweaters and gaudy light displays, always emphasize the fact that Holly is on the fringes. This Christmas, however, Holly can’t wait to see her family. This year she’s bringing along handsome, perfect Jason, the man she’s been dating for the past month, whose childhood in a series of foster homes makes him view Holly’s family with wistful envy. She can’t wait to show Jason the traditional family decorations, meals, and other celebrations, and she can finally join in on the matching clothing. Nothing will spoil this holiday, not even Holly’s buddy Isaac, who tags along for the ride from New York to Virginia and who seems strangely hostile to Jason.  

The holiday bliss that Holly promised Jason disappears the moment she opens the door to her parents’ house to find her brother in a drunken stupor and her parents nowhere in sight. Things go from bad to worse, until Holly finds unexpected holiday cheer from an unlikely source. “Mistletoe and Holly” strikes just the right holiday note; it’s sweet without being sappy, funny without resorting to slapstick and it has just a touch of moral lesson as Holly realizes that her siblings’ perfect lives aren’t so perfect after all. The personal growth doesn’t come at the expense of the romance, which is predictable but lively.  

The strong last third of This Christmas can’t compensate for the weak initial two thirds, but at least the book saves the best for last. Next Christmas, Zebra should ask Liz Ireland to author the entire anthology. She has a definite flair for romantic comedy, with a talent for both aspects of the equation.  

--Susan Scribner


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