The Holly and the Ivy
It’s no secret that I love a good Christmas romance. With this month’s TBR theme being holiday romance, I just had to go looking for something Christmasy, and preferably historical. I found a treat in Elisabeth Fairchild’s 1999 trad Regency, The Holly and the Ivy. It’s not high drama, but rather a sweetly traditional Christmas story. The hero irked me at times, but otherwise I loved the book and I’d give it a B+.
The hero, Lord Balfour, is often known as Lord Thorn for his prickly demeanor. However, readers learn early on that there is a reason for the prickliness and the need for routine and control. Balfour’s parents pretty much abandoned him to the care of school and servants from an early age. His butler, Temple, acted as his main father figure until dying suddenly. Now bereft, Balfour approaches his first holiday season without Temple and though he is often impatient and rude, one can also see how lost he feels. And that makes him just human enough to be likable – most of the time.
Balfour’s rigid little world gets upended by the neighbors. Though not aristocracy, elderly Mrs. Rivers was quite comfortable once. Now in ill health, she is unaware that her servants have stolen from her to the point that she lacks sufficient funds to maintain her household. Her granddaughter, Mary Rivers, newly arrived from the countryside, tries to keep some of this painful knowledge from her.
Balfour’s initial meeting with the constantly cheerful Mary and her sweet-natured Gran is both predictable and humorous. They pretty much turn his world upside-down and keep right on going. Mary is the sort of heroine often mocked in romance nowadays. She is cheerful, kind to all and just radiates goodness and perfection. In the early chapters of the story, she beams, sparkles, and all but farts rainbows all over London. And yet, I couldn’t help liking her. Most heroines of this sort make me feel as if the author is trying to hard. However, Mary comes across as genuine, and I couldn’t help liking her.
The general plotline in this book will feel familiar to pretty much anyone who’s ever read a Christmas romance – or even a smattering of holiday stories. Balfour needs help getting his Christmas-dreading self through the season – namely, the traditional Christmas Eve ball he always hosts. Mary is not only sweet and cheery, but she’s also good at the practical tasks of putting together a Christmas celebration. Along the way, Balfour can’t help but thaw a little, and Mary finds herself falling for him even as she recognizes the social gulf between them. She may come from a respectable family, but she’s far from titled wealth.
Without spoiling, I will simply say that Balfour does something just abominable to Mary toward the end of the book. He does get put in his place in a most satisfying scene, and there is the requisite grovel, but the whole affair still left a bad taste in my mouth. Even so, I really did enjoy this book. There’s not much by way of action here, but plenty of small, everyday moments rendered into sweetness by a solid author.