A Christmas Promise
Grade : C+

I picked up my copy of A Christmas Promise at a library book sale a couple of months ago for a dime. My experience in the past with Mary Balogh has been spotty, but I thought there was a chance this might have resale value and my initial investment was hardly steep, so decision made. When this book showed up on our recent Top Ten Holiday Reads Mini-Poll, I dug it out to see if it would make my top ten. Unfortunately, it did not.

Eleanor “Ellie” Transome is the daughter of a cit, specifically a coal merchant. Her upbringing is refined, but – as any reader of Regency romance knows – there is no perfuming the stench of trade. Eleanor doesn’t care, though. She has no plans to raise herself socially. Her rich and dying father does, however, and she wishes to make him happy.

Randolph, the Earl of Falloden, is new to his title, and though he has loyalty to his family name, his inheritance was shabby to say the least, since his predecessor left him with piles of debt. Randolph is still trying to figure out what to do about this when Joseph Transome takes it out of his hands by buying up all his bills and outstanding loans and presenting Randolph with an offer he can’t refuse: make his daughter a countess, and it will all go away. Randolph finds Eleanor cold and assumes she is a grasping social climber. Eleanor disdains the aristocracy and assumes Randolph is a worthless gambling spendthrift. And so their marriage is launched based on coercion and prejudice. Hardly the most auspicious of beginnings…

First, the good news. At no time during the course of this novel does Eleanor fall into prostitution. Also good: because she and the Earl are married so early on in the book Eleanor never decides to risk her reputation or her virginal state for one night of love. Also, the two of them communicate remarkably well for a Balogh couple. Yes, they make assumptions about each other, and, yes, they are kind of snippy and sarcastic with each other to begin with, but fairly early on they agree to be civil and act like adults. Yay for them.

For readers who like the trappings of Christmas, there are a whole lot of trappings to enjoy here: romantic (but not inconvenient) snowfall, snowball fights, group sledding, gathering of Christmas greenery, a Nativity play, Christmas carols, Christmas Eve mass, and a meaningful gift. Everyone is in a holiday mood - is, in fact, more or less ordered to enjoy themselves by the dying wishes of Joseph Transome. The novel begins in London, but Eleanor and the Earl retire to the countryside to his ancestral estate for Christmas, and they invite four of his friends and about twenty of her relatives to celebrate with them. It was here that the book started to downgrade for me.

The Transome family is big and loud and friendly. In comparison to the aristocracy on display here who are cool and reticent, they are all that is desirable in humanity. They also all get along. With everyone. Here was my first big problem. Balogh throws together over twenty relatives, one in-law, and four friends from a completely different social stratum, and they all fit snugly together like peas in a pod. I have a family. I have also had the occasion to observe other families over the course of my nearly 40 years. In a group that size there should be at least one mother who lives her life through the accomplishments of her children, or one relative who just bought a brand new carriage and can’t resist showing it off and dropping hints about how much it cost. There should be at least a couple of ramped up kids who run about the house and drive their parents crazy. Or one older relative who can’t stop talking about his arthritis and how it’s just getting worse and isn’t old age a pip? But not amongst the Transomes. The only irritating relation is Eleanor’s old beau who comes along hoping to establish a little adultery with his now married girl friend, and he’s only there to show the reader what a better deal Eleanor has with the Earl and how capable she is of showing loyalty to her marriage early on.

The other problem with this book is that other than the Christmas activities listed above, almost nothing happens. The story takes place over two months, with action around the time Eleanor and the Earl marry, then a lull, and then more action right before Christmas. There is a whole lot of stewing about the marriage and summing up of recent developments by both Eleanor and the Earl, but much of that interior monologue is redundant because we already experienced the occurrence in real time. Mr. Transome sets up the situation and then Eleanor and the Earl think about how they feel about getting married. Then they get married and Eleanor and the Earl think about how they feel about the wedding and the consummation. Fast forward a couple of months and they are going out to the woods and gathering greens and then Eleanor and the Earl think about how they felt about gathering greens and about how the other person’s gathering of greens revealed new and important information about that person’s character. I like books that are character driven, but the characters have to do stuff to hold my attention if the author wants me to keep reading.

Eleanor and the Earl spent an inordinate amount of time thinking about the fact that he is an earl and she is a cit’s daughter. And yet this is never a real barrier to the relationship in terms of societal shunning, significant differences in behavior, or differing expectations for their marriage. It’s a non-problem that they both obsess over.

A Christmas Promise did not put me in a holiday mood, and that makes me feel kind of Grinch-like, especially given that this is apparently a favorite among AAR’s readership. I’ve enjoyed several of Mary Balogh’s short stories set at Christmastime. Perhaps I ought to stick with the shorter format from now on.

Reviewed by Rachel Potter
Grade : C+

Sensuality: Subtle

Review Date : December 21, 2009

Publication Date: 1992

Recent Comments …

  1. What kept me reading was the sheer unpredictability of the storyline. I knew David’s and Chelsea’s paths would cross again…

Rachel Potter

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