The Christmas Key
Lori Wilde’s heartwarming and mystical Twilight, Texas series continues with this seasonal offering, The Christmas Key.
Marine Gunnery Sergeant Mark – Gunny – Shepherd is living with PTSD thanks to his service in Kandahar, and physical trauma thanks to a final mission that left him with a cane and a limp and killed his closest friend. Insomniac and traumatized, he characterizes his pain as a “civilian nine, marine 5.” Finally ready to be discharged a year later, he receives a key wrapped with a red velvet ribbon on Christmas Eve with the request he deliver a mysterious key to Clayton’s family in Twilight, Texas in person. And Gunny, out of loyalty to his friend, does so. After all, Clayton Luther all but demanded he tuck a kismet cookie, baked with love by Twilight’s famous Cookie Club, under his pillow last Christmas Eve. Gunny doesn’t know that the legend attached to the cookie says that if he does so he’ll dream of his soulmate, but sure enough, he dreams of a beautiful woman beside an emerald lake the night after he puts it there.
The determinedly positive but lonely Naomi Luther, Clayton’s sister and owner of Personal Fit, a personal shopping service, is rushing through her Christmas Eve routine when she accidentally hops into Gunny’s Jeep as it idles in the parking lot of her aunt’s store. About to adopt Luther’s four year old son Hunter – even though, by her own admission, she’s helpless at mothering – she’s stunned to be sitting next to the dark-haired man she dreamed of when she put a kismet cookie under her pillow last Christmas Eve.
To Gunny’s astonishment, Naomi is the blue-eyed girl of his (literal) dreams. Within minutes of their meeting, he’s calling her “butterfly” and they’re becoming familiar. But he has a mission to complete, and heads to The First Presbyterian Church of Twilight, where he knows Clayton Luther’s bones lie – and where Clayton and Naomi’s father is the pastor.
Tom Luther has no idea that Gunny is his late son’s closest friend and presumes instead that he is the handyman a friend has hired to make repairs to his church. Though Gunny tries to explain, the weight of the guilt he bears for Clayton’s death overwhelms him, especially when he learns that Clayton’s wife may have committed suicide in response to his death. Lying to the Luthers, Gunny tries to fit into their world, and at the same time, he and Naomi begin to fall in love. But what will they both do when the truth comes out?
The Christmas Key is an odd duck that straddles many genres, and along the way manages to avoid appealing to readers of any of them.
None of its plot points really fit together. The intense, dark, PTSD subplot and Gunny’s broken childhood, and the nightmares that Naomi has about her brother’s death don’t fit into a world lit with magical realism that includes cookies that make you dream of your soulmate; nor do magical, mystical soulmate cookies fit into a plot that would have comfortably worked as an inspirational novel with a decrease in the sensuality level.
Gunny is a decent dude, but he’s so swamped with guilt and trauma that it’s hard to believe in his recovery. He’s prone to monologues about how he’s tainting the universe with his very existence, which makes him one hell of a soggy pill of a guy, no matter how handsome he is.
Naomi is so incompetent that she can’t properly sweep up broken glass without Gunny’s help, and so weak that the memory of her brother’s year old death makes her swoon and throw up. That’s all you really need to know about her – aside from being a self-described “good Christian girl with a naughty streak” she doesn’t do anything interesting except, as Gunny points out, wanting to be needed.
The book’s biggest problem is simple: there’s absolutely no romantic tension between Naomi and Gunny. They Are Soulmates, They Will Fall In Love, There Is No Doubt About It, No Matter How Much Mark Beats His Chest About How He Will Taint Her Purity, yet the story goes on for two hundred pages more, trying to mill tension out of the concept. They like and instantaneously trust one another even though they absolutely should or would not if they hadn’t had a fuzzy Christmas Eve soulmate dream about one another years ago. Don’t get me started on their first date, which takes place in an abandoned bowling alley and involves shattering plates, tribute tattoos to her dead brother and ugly confessions. One complication might have worked but does not because of the weight of the soulmate plot – Naomi also has a boyfriend, who is a jerk and exists only as a temporary plot obstacle (guess what she’s never had with him, even though they’ve been together for over ten years?).
The mistaken identity part of the plot works on the notion that if everyone avoids Saying The Thing then the plot can go on. And on. And so Gunny says half-sentences while Tom Luther presses on and talks over him to convince him to stay. Other complications – including killing off Clayton’s wife in one of the darkest ways possible so Naomi and Gunny can have a plot moppet to dote on – don’t really register. And yes, said plot moppet says things like “I broked the pickles” even though he’s four and should be speaking in full sentences by now. And he also calls Gunny “daddy” when he meets him and clings to his legs because, you see, his actual dad was a marine and Gunny is wearing a uniform! Yes, really.
In fact, Gunny only seems to exist to step into his friend’s role in the lives of his parents and child (yeah – don’t think too hard about the incestuous implications here re. Naomi), and when a final manipulation from Naomi’s father reveals further creepy machinations you can only marvel at the mild, benevolent sociopathy involved in the plot. In a thriller, this would all be utterly creepy.
The story of a martyr and a suffering saint, The Christmas Key crashes fluff into angst in a way that’s only acceptable for C-level Hallmark movies. Reader, you deserve better.