Jodi Thomas’ messy Mistletoe Miracles continues her Ransom Canyon series and combines the stories of three unlikely couples who manage to fall in love through in-name-only romances, all during the Christmas season in Crossroads, Texas.
The Maverick Ranch has been in the Holloway family for generations, but with the money running out, the three Holloway brothers are faced with the very real possibility of losing it. Of the three of them, Griffin is the only one with a sensible head on his shoulders, so he’s the one who steps up, deciding to find himself a woman to marry who can bring both money and land with her. He has until Christmas to pull off this miracle, and enlists the help of the Franklin sisters, Rose and Daisy, two ancient matchmakers who run an inn on the edge of town.
The Franklins set Griffin up with Sunlan – Sunny – Winston Krown, the rich daughter of a politician who runs her own ranch in Colorado and is willing to enter into a name-only marriage with Griffin that will solve his financial problems, give her a husband to parade before his father and give a name to her unborn child, the result of a drunken one-night stand with a stranger. Tough, business-minded Sunlan has a lot of ideas about fixing the ranch, and soon both Sunlan and Griffin find themselves having feelings for one another. But can Sunlan trade the independence for which she’s worked so hard for a working relationship?
Jaxson “Jax” O’Grady thought he’d be happy living an isolated life in the middle of the woods, but the loneliness is starting to get to him. Directionless at thirty-six, a deadly accident caused him to reject his training as a firefighter and he’s moved into the family cabin at Midnight Crossing. He stumbles upon a car accident that changes his life forever when he finds a wounded collie he names Buddy, and Mallory Mayweather, who has been rendered mute by the accident. A domestic violence victim, she’d been running from her ex, who is unwilling to let her go, and she’s not willing to trust anyone. How can Jax prove himself to her?
Drama teacher Jamie Johnson is happily single, but lies to the townspeople about her marital status to avoid matchmakers and creeps. When Wyatt Johnson, an exhausted army man who’s in the States for the first time in three years, is found marching down the center of a busy street, declaring he’s heading to only one location – home – the sheriff’s office presumes he’s the husband Jamie’s always talking about, and deposits him on her couch. When Jamie returns from a weekend trip with students to find a stranger emerging from her shower, she’s horrified – but she and Wyatt are trapped by the town’s assumptions. Jamie is terribly lonely, and Wyatt is very isolated – so why not pretend to be together while living separate lives? But Wyatt’s next assignment looms, leaving them caught between the possibility of the future and the power of here and now.
Mistletoe Miracles is loaded with dysfunction. From top to bottom, from door to floor, there’s not a single normal, healthy relationship in the entire book, which tries to persuade the reader that the situations faced by Mallory and Jamie (a home invasion, a car wreck) – are cute when compared to the Real Danger they faced in the past.
There are some good points to the novel. Thomas’ prose is as smooth as it always is, she has a sharp way of encapsulating life in midland Texas and a certain type of folks who live there,and her research into the ranching world is impeccable. The best characters in the book are the ancient Franklin sisters, Rose and Daisy, who decorate on a slow slope and believe in true love, and I liked the way the author lightly interweaves the different storylines.
But there’s an undercurrent of delusion running through the three main relationships that has a note of ugliness to it which isn’t addressed and left me squirming in my seat as I read it.
The Sunlan/Griffin romance is the most interesting and the most evenly balanced – it’s only Sunlan battling a dysfunctional past here. The pair come to care for each other with realistic slowness, and they care about protecting each other, which is lovely to read. But Sunlan never gets in touch with her baby’s biological father, who may have been a jerk who never bothered to memorize her name but still deserves some kind of notification of the pregnancy. Her father’s abusive behavior toward her is excused with an ‘I did it to toughen her up’ shrug, and the fact that Griffith and the baby fix Sunlan’s dysfunction without her really having to look deeper into herself is a weak conclusion to a powerful storyline.
Jax’s story is better when it’s solely about him redeveloping social connections through Buddy. Introducing Mallory – unconscious – and having Jax poetically monologue at her, then introduce himself to her nurse as family (they’re very distantly related although only through marriage), is beyond uncomfortable; making her mute thanks to the accident for the first half of their relationship doesn’t help, either. Mallory doesn’t have much of a personality, besides ‘was abused a lot’; the dog is way more interesting than she is. Yet I pitied her – she’s exchanging one form of dysfunction for another, one kind of domineering protector for another, even though Jax is well-meaning and cares about her. She barely manages to grow a spine and become independent, and only then, because Jax rescues her.
I can’t mince words about it; the Wyatt/Jamie storyline is cringeworthy and insinuative. Wyatt is a total stranger who swears he’ll leave the house without causing a fuss – but don’t tell the authorities, miss! People will figure out you were lying about being married to keep a rapey teacher away from you! Jamie is right – it’s illegal for people to ask about why Jaimie lied about having a husband, and if she’d been fired for such a reason she could sue the school district. The majority of their chapters caused my skin to crawl, no matter how nice of a guy Wyatt was – and he was a very nice guy. Jamie’s a nice person, with her insularity and teapot collecting. Thomas tries hard to make us like them, but it’s hard to get over the fact that law-abiding Wyatt thought staying in a strange woman’s house while she was gone was a great idea and being nonchalant about using her possessions was a positive thing. It’s a real shame, because the romance is slow-burning and interesting. Too bad Jamie’s so credulous she actually believes Wyatt when he says he installs computers, ignoring his abrupt exit from her life and the many scars on his body that suggest that he might not actually be a computer programmer.
Wyatt, Jax and Griffin all have the same homogenous dream of a house, land and a woman who looks like their heroine. I wish there had been a lot more imagination thrown in, more diversity in their dreams. Only Sunlan and Griffith’s romance rescues the novel; the other two will likely leave the reader wishing for something a little less creepy.