The Holly and the Ivy
Originally published in 1999, The Holly and the Ivy brings together a young man who has never enjoyed Christmas and a young woman who loves it, but is finding it a trial this year, being separated from her loving and beloved family and missing them profoundly.
Charles Thornton Baxter, Viscount Balfour – nicknamed Lord Thorn by many because of his rather prickly demeanour – has no patience with the festive season and just goes through the motions, hosting the season’s largest Christmas Eve ball simply as a way of fulfilling all his obligations for visiting and making merry at one stroke. This year, however, Christmas is going to be an especially difficult time, as he has recently lost a dear friend, the man who was more of a father to him than his own – largely absent – father ever was.
Mary Rivers is staying with her grandmother who lives next door to the tetchy – but handsome – young viscount, and is sorely missing her large family. Every year, one of the Rivers siblings is sent to London to stay with Gran, and while Mary loves the old lady, she can’t help feeling lonely. Still, she faces the world with a smile, a smile which Baxter finds incredibly irritating at first, wondering as he does what she can possibly have to smile about so continually and finding it offensive given his own raw grief. It’s only when he witnesses a private moment of sadness that he realises that her smile is just a façade and that behind it is a lonely young woman who has made an art out of making the best of things.
This is a lovely, character-driven romance in which the relationship between the central characters is allowed to develop at a decent pace and in which they get to know each other as friends while the undercurrent of attraction between them grows stronger. Unfortunately, however, things veer badly off course when Baxter, in his relative naivete when it comes to women (it’s not actually said outright if he’s a virgin, but if he’s not, he’s fairly inexperienced) listens to a couple of his more worldly friends who cause him to believe that Mary, who is not wealthy or titled, is a fortune hunter. When an unfortunate coincidence serves to reinforce that belief, he becomes cold and contemptuous toward Mary, who is at a loss to explain the sudden change of manner in the man she has come to know and love.
This is rather an unpleasant turn of events that risks destroying the reader’s sympathy for Baxter utterly, but fortunately, Ms Fairchild fleshes out his back-story in such a way as to enable the reader to retain it, even when he’s being a prize arse. He does redeem himself, however, being there for Mary when she badly needs him, even though she has given him no reason to hope for her forgiveness. But for most of the book, he’s a likeable character, an awkward, sometimes charming beta hero with a dry sense of humour who is struggling to adapt to a major loss and change in his life and to do the right thing by those who depend on him.
In spite of that tricky plot-turn, I enjoyed the book. Elisabeth Fairchild’s writing is expressive without being overly sentimental or saccharine; the emotions experienced and displayed by her characters are realistic and deeply felt, with moments of true poignancy for Baxter, especially, as he struggles with grief and loss amid so much festive cheer.
The Holly and the Ivy isn’t available digitally, which is a shame, as it’s an entertaining, well-written and emotionally resonant story in which the spirit of the season plays an important part. But reasonably priced second hand copies are easy to come by, and if you find one, I’d certainly recommend it if you’re looking for a quick, comforting seasonal read.