The Mischief of the Mistletoe
I’ll say this for the art department at Dutton: They have some serious love for Lauren Willig. Her covers are always attractive, but the one on The Mischief of the Mistletoe is absolutely stunning. Periodically I would find myself lost in a daze and realize I was doing it, again – staring at the cover, mesmerized by its beauty. If ever there was a book to buy for the cover alone, this is it. Oh, and did I mention that the book is good, too
If you’ve been keeping up with the Pink Carnation series, you’ll know Turnip Fitzhugh. Nice, lovable guy who’s a bit of a dolt. He gets his own book here, and interestingly enough, the second half of it takes place at the same time and setting that figured in The Temptation of the Night Jasmine – The Dowager Duchess of Dovedale’s Christmas house party (hence that gorgeous, holly-strewn cover). It features events we’ve already seen, but from a completely different point of view (a device I enjoyed quite a lot).
A few weeks before the house party, Turnip is pressed into service to deliver a care package to his younger sister at school. While there, he encounters a Christmas pudding with a mysterious message about an assignation at a nearby frost fair. Arabella Dempsey, a teacher at the school, gets caught up in the drama with him. They end up attending the frost fair together, and by chance they become involved in an increasingly dangerous spy operation that gets a bit out of hand. As they play their part in larger events, they become involved with each other. It’s a fairly straightforward romance in the sense that they both realize their feelings quickly. But Arabella is an impoverished parson’s daughter, and Turnip has money to spare. She doesn’t think he can really be serious about her, and is afraid to get her hopes up. Turnip knows that he’s not exactly a silver-tongued devil, so it takes him some time to express his feelings.
This book was a lot of fun. Granted, I love Christmas books and I love house party books. I have also been a fan of the series so far, so I was predisposed to like it. It has all those holiday house party trappings, with the added fun of showing a flip side to a story we’ve already read. Longtime fans of the series will also notice some familiar names at Turnip’s sister Sally’s school. Her best friends are Lizzie Reid (whose brother is the hero of The Betrayal of the Blood Lily) and Agnes Wooliston (youngest sister of the Pink Carnation herself). Other familiar characters abound, but in a fairly organic way; they don’t feel as if they are trotted out merely for stage time.
But the success story of the book is really Turnip. One might ask how you can really fall for a hero who answers to a vegetable moniker (his name is really Reginald, which I had to look up just now, because no one ever uses it). Turnip is a classic beta hero, and I was surprised by how much I like him. He’s never going to be the smartest guy in the room – something he admits freely. His waistcoats are sometimes a little ridiculous. But it turns out he has feelings of his own and is damn good in a fight when push comes to shove. He’s not a master spy by any means, but he’s been privately helping those who are in his own quiet way. His love for Arabella is sweet and touching.
I liked Arabella too. She has a wry sense of humor that Turnip understands, and she’s a classic poor relation who makes good. One of her close friends is Jane Austen, who plays a minor role in the romance. I’ll admit that the runaway fad of authors and historical figures in modern literature is not really my favorite plot device, but it’s modestly used here (and at least Jane isn’t a vampire).
This is, of course, part of a series – the seventh book, to be precise. You don’t have to have read all of them to enjoy it, but you definitely lose context if you start here. If you’re a fan, you’ll also know that Willig’s books usually have two parallel storylines – one about the Regency spy du jour, and one about Eloise, the modern American who is writing her dissertation about said spies. Eloise is absent from this particular book, most likely because this time has already been covered. I like Eloise, but I didn’t feel like the book was lacking without her.
The bottom line: Pink Carnation fans should enjoy this one. If you’re not yet a fan, buy this for the cover, and then start at the beginning and make your way through in order. Even if you’re skeptical about a vegetable-named hero, I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised.