hollyandivy 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.

– Lynn Spencer

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My final read for this year’s Multi-Blog TBR Challenge is a sweet traditional Regency from Elisabeth Fairchild, whose The Christmas Spirit still ranks as one of my all-time favourite Christmassy reads.

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. Grade: B-

– Caz Owens