As we coast into the last month of the 2013 TBR Challenge, we get to one of my favorite categories – holiday romances. Since I was unpacking from a move, I just ended up reading the first holiday tale I encountered – Sandra Madden’s 2001 Christmas romance, Comfort and Joy. I probably should have kept right on digging because this frustrating little book definitely lands squarely in C grade territory for me.
The book has its good points. For starters, I loved the 1870s Boston settings. It’s refreshing at times to have a break from the Regency/Victorian England That Never Was. And since I tend to like romances with characters from different classes, the old money Boston hero and Irish immigrant heroine in this story caught my eye as well. Though acceptance of their romance comes perhaps a bit more easily than it would have in real life, the author does still give some consideration to the prejudices and class tension of the time.
So, what’s the basic set-up here? Well, we have that old standby of amnesia. Most amnesia tales I read have heroines in peril, so giving us a hero with a lost memory made for a little change of pace. Charles Rycroft comes from a prominent Boston family, and runs his father’s publishing company. He also collects art and while bringing home a prized sketch of St. Nicholas, he gets beaten and robbed. Maeve O’Malley, an Irish parlormaid, finds him and takes him home to nurse back to health. As it turns out, Charles has no memory of who he is and when Maeve is compromised while caring for him, her father and brother push the two into marriage.
The story opens as Charles has regained the memory of his identity and he is shocked to learn that he has married Maeve. His first impulse is to quietly seek divorce, but something about Maeve touches him and he decides to take her to the Rycroft home to celebrate a fine Christmas with all the trimmings before setting her aside – with a generous settlement, of course. Though I found the premise somewhat uncomfortable, I could see where Charles’ attitudes about class were probably true to the time even if they make a modern reader cringe. In addition, the characters are basically likable, so I was able to sink right into the book at first and enjoy it as a fairytale of sorts.
At its best moments, I could enjoy the wish fulfillment portions of the story. Maeve’s story has a definite Cinderella feel, as we get to see her being outfitted with beautiful dresses and becoming the belle of a ball. Even though the romance felt a bit unrealistic, some of her scenes with Charles are still sweet as well and I did want to see her get that Christmas greenery-decked happily ever after.
Unfortunately, my enjoyment did not last long. For starters, Madden’s portrayal of Maeve and of Irish characters in general showed little nuance and was extremely stereotypical. Maeve often breaks into brogue, and there is much talk of fairies and superstition. Maeve’s father is described as looking somewhat like a leprechaun, and I found it even more grating that pretty much every Irish male character is either a drunk, a boxer or a cop. Stereotypical, much?
And then there’s the St. Nicholas sketch. At first it seems as if the disappearance of the sketch will merely serve as a convenient way to get Maeve and Charles together. Instead the author takes the event and spins it into a somewhat less than compelling(or even convincing) suspense subplot. This subplot starts to take over toward the end of the book, and it was pretty eyeroll-inducing.
Normally I love a good holiday romance, but this one ended up being rather disappointingly forgettable. Perhaps I’ll have better luck next year!
– Lynn Spencer