Holiday by Candlelight
Holiday romances tend to be a strictly Christmas affair, so when I saw Holiday by Candlelight, I was intrigued. There aren’t many Hanukkah romances out there, but I’ve read a couple good ones. One side of my family is Jewish so I tend to keep an eye out for books that represent that side of my world in fiction. I’ve been in a reviewing slump this year, so I was hoping this book might help me get my fire back. Sadly, while it does dig deeper than usual into some issues of PTSD and anxiety, the advertised holiday plot really does not work.
We learn right away that the hero, Dr. Caleb Matsuda, is struggling. He used to be an avid outdoorsman, but injuries from an avalanche took away his ability to perform as a surgeon, and somehow he is now practicing medicine in a different specialty. I’m no expert on the medical field, but it did seem a bit odd that he could switch specialties without much explanation. The only doctor I’ve known in real life who did this had to do a second residency.
This isn’t the only part of Dr. Matsuda’s life that gets glossed over in rather jarring fashion. From the text, one can eventually figure out that he was raised Jewish and that he had a Jewish mother and Asian father. There is some passing mention of at least one relative on his father’s side being Methodist, but the interracial and interfaith aspects of the hero’s identity really don’t get explored in any meaningful way even though one might think that these make up important parts of his identity. The mentions of any cultural or religious practices ;re slight and far between. He talks about bringing sufganiyot to a Hanukkah party, and reference is made to his mother’s typical practice of making a nice shabbat dinner. With regard to his father being Japanese, there is pretty much nothing there about how this may have shaped his identity.
While the lingering issues of survivor guilt, anxiety and trauma related to Dr. Matsuda’s accident do get plenty of discussion in the story, something kept feeling off as I read. I reread parts of this book, and what stood out to me was the overarching theme that somehow Caleb needed to be ‘fixed’ so that he could then be a good partner for the heroine, Garnet. While it’s natural to see someone in emotional pain and want for them to find healing, there is a difference between loving someone and wanting to support them versus having your love for someone be conditional upon them changing. And I felt as though things veered too close to that second scenario here.
The romance between Caleb and Garnet throws some of my issues with the story into broad highlight. For starters, Caleb apparently needs to adjust to his disabilities and deal with his issues by moving to a small ski town in Montana. Him doing something that seems so very triggering never really does get explained. Get used to that. Lots of stuff doesn’t get explained.
Once in Montana, Caleb meets Garnet. She is supposed to be the sweet, girl next door who ‘saves’ him. However, her lack of sensitivity to his issues on occasion made me roll my eyes more than once. With regard to the ‘holiday’ of the title, this isn’t so much a story of Hanukkah as it is of Garnet planning a Christmas party and wanting to make it inclusive so she gets Caleb involved in the planning. What occurs isn’t really a true multifaith celebration. It’s still basically a Christmas party, with not much traditionally Hanukkah-related to set it apart. There is something which is passed off as Hanukkah dinner, but it really felt off to me. The Jewish side of my family is very secular, but even so, I found myself wondering why there was no fried food, candles, Hanukkah gelt, or dreidel, etc…
Getting back to Garnet and Caleb, we figure out right away that they are attracted to each other. However, Garnet insists on planning her Christmas party in a place that is set up on the slopes so Caleb is going to have to ride a ski lift to get there. He tells her this is triggering for him – yet she persists. And this sets a pattern that continues. There are repeated situations where Caleb is basically traumatized, but he is somehow in the wrong for not just getting over himself. The insensitivity of that stung.
I could see where Garnet and Caleb would be initially attracted to each other. However, Caleb survived a terrible event that killed people close to him. I could see why he would have issues. Garnet’s framing of his issues as some kind of affront to her independence irritated me. Relationships are about compromise, but I felt like she was too rigid with Caleb and not nearly accepting enough.
I agree that romance needs to more accurately represent the diversity of the readers who love the genre. However, this book doesn’t really accomplish that. Holiday by Candlelight could have been so much more, but really it’s mostly a small-town Christmas story dressed up as something else. I can’t recommend it.