The Forever Christmas Tree
Sandra Hill opens her Bell Sound series with The Forever Christmas Tree, the tale of a female SEAL and the Christmas Tree farmer whose heart she broke.
Lt. Wendy Patterson, Navy WEAL (Women on Earth, Land and Sea – the women’s division of the SEALs platoon) is about to head off on a two week liberty. She and her SEAL friends are in a bar after the funeral of her close friend Mac, when they start talking about their holiday plans. Wendy plans to head back to her hometown, Bell Cove, nestled in the Outer Banks of North Carolina, for the first time in twelve years. Her Aunt Millie has been taking care of the property since Wendy’s father passed away and while Wendy attends to her WEAL duties, and there are rumors circulating through the family that Millie is turning the place into a resort for elderly swinging singles – a rumor that seems to be true, as when Wendy checks in, Millie’s in the middle of running ‘Mambo Monday’. When she lands – trailing five of her SEAL buddies behind her – the situation turns out to be even more colorful, filled with wild personalities and various pets. While in Bell Cove, Wendy must confront more than the memory of her dead parents and the ghost of her failed dream to become a doctor, she’ll have to confront her old flame, Ethan, whom she’s been avoiding since they broke each other’s hearts in college.
Ethan Rutledge is one son of a Grinch. Even though he runs the Holiday Shoppe (two ps and an e, please, per his grandmother’s instructions!) and sells trees worldwide – his farm purveys a special breed of pine called the Rutledge Tree, a stunted and puny form of pine which embarrasses Ethan but which people drive for miles to purchase every year. He hates Christmas with a passion, which makes sense, as this was the time of year when Wendy skipped town, joined the navy and dumped him after she found out he drunkenly slept with another girl who ended up giving birth to his daughter, Cassie. Since this came on the heels of him discovering he hadn’t qualified for a scholarship to veterinary school, the holiday is verboten to him. Ethan’s hatred of Christmas is not helped by his position on the town council, which is in crisis because Bell Cove’s bell factory – established when the town was founded in 1902 – is in danger of being closed and damaging the historical value and charm of the town. Wendy has a solution for that – she wants to open a treasure hunting company in the empty factory. The town is excited for this prospect – and about keeping Wendy around – but Ethan is less than sure of her proposal.
He’s even less excited about the town council’s latest wacky scheme. In order to foot the bill for some holiday lighting, they do a Grinch-themed publicity campaign, which turns into a competition among the various businesses in town to create the most elaborate Grinch-related display possible.
Amused by a cluster of SEALs, dirty dancing seniors and Grinch lookalikes, Wendy tries to get along with Ethan – who is reluctant to jump back into anything with Wendy. After losing his wife to Multiple Sclerosis, his daughter is the center of his world, and the hip defect that will require a replacement is a constant worry. When Cassie declares her interest in learning how to swim like Wendy used to – an exercise good for her hip – Wendy becomes even more involved in the family. But soon she’s called in on active duty, and Ethan decides to take Cassie and move to California, finally escaping North Carolina for once and for all.
Will Wendy fit herself back into Bell Cove? Will she return to her WEAL life? Will Ethan cheer up and grow to like Christmas?
Sandra Hill, as everyone knows, traffics in goofy romance. With her over-the-top, time-traveling Vikings, there’s culture shock – but here, writing a contemporary romance, the goofiness isn’t spared but the human relationships and humor shine through.
Wendy and Ethan are both interesting protagonists. Having a female SEAL as a lead? The guy had a relationship that didn’t match up to the glory of his relationship with the heroine? Refreshing as heck. The romance is awkward but charming, but my biggest problem with the entirety of the novel is the way it addresses Ethan’s wife’s death; the poor woman had had MS for her daughter’s entire life, she knew Ethan never really loved her and was in love with Wendy. There’s something very painful and ugly about that that the novel doesn’t address, and there’s surely a better way to make your characters fated soulmates.
I loved the camaraderie between Wendy and her WEAL/SEAL friends. That said, their introductions at the beginning of the book both scream series bait and info-dumping. I didn’t mind it much, because their friendships and interactions with one another feel very real and true to life, but it’s very heavy. And the way Wendy addresses Cassie’s hip dysplasia is awkward and classless. (“Is she handicapped?!” she literally asks Ethan, as if the man is going to respond well to such a question about his young child).
You know what you’re getting with Hill. Internal dialogue like “Oh…my…Goodness! Be…still…my…hormone-hammering…heart!” Horny busybodies! Horny main characters! Cartoonish behavior! Hill does Quirky and does it right, and for the most part succeeds; and although this isn’t the most perfect of her novels, it’ll provide ample entertainment to those who like their romances funny and light.