|If you’re a fan of sweet, magical Christmas stories you can’t do any better than Kristin Hannah’s novella Comfort & Joy. Even a cynic like myself couldn’t help feeling the warm fuzzy glow. It’s no coincidence that the book references the classic feel-good movies It’s a Wonderful Life and Miracle on 34th Street – you have to be the worst kind of Scrooge not to appreciate this one.
High school librarian Joy Candellaro approaches the holiday season with dread and sadness. She’s tired of pretending that she has recovered from the devastating shock of finding her husband Thom and sister Stacey in bed together eight months ago. She’s tired of everyone’s sympathy and pity. She just wants to avoid Christmas altogether and get on with her dreary life. But when she learns that Stacey is pregnant and engaged to marry Thom, Joy snaps. She takes off for the Bakersfield airport and buys a ticket on the first flight she sees to a small town called Hope.
When the small plane she is on develops engine trouble and crashes, Joy decides it’s a chance to walk away from her old life. She finds her way to the nearest town, and then to the Comfort Fishing Lodge, hoping it will be a place where she can rest and recover. At the dilapidated lodge, she meets Daniel O’Shea and his young son Bobby. Just months ago, Bobby’s mother was killed in a car crash, and Daniel is struggling to develop a relationship with the son he hasn’t seen in years. Joy quickly realizes that these two people are in even more pain than she is, and she’s determined to help them realize how much they love and need each other. Christmas may be a time of miracles, but it is going to test every ounce of Joy’s faith to find a way to heal the O’Sheas – and herself.
On the surface, this plot summary may sound like a typical corny holiday tale, and Hannah is certainly adept at writing effective melodrama, but there is a twist that occurs halfway through the book that ups the ante considerably. I can’t provide even a whisper of a hint, but I will say that the twist makes the rest of the story more poignant and the ending more satisfying. The novella’s heroine is another reason for its success. Joy Faith Candellaro may be afflicted with an overly symbolic name, but she has a bite to her personality, a touch of sarcastic energy that Hannah portrays so well when she’s not writing Lifetime movie weepers. Joy may be a woman who has lost everything, but she is still a fighter, and I rooted for her to find her miracles and magic. The rest of the characters aren’t as well developed, but it’s really Joy’s story, and her first person narrative inspires laughter and tears in equal measure.
There are a few aspects of the story that don’t quite work. Bobby is supposed to be eight years old, but he acts much younger; most boys of that age wouldn’t watch Winnie the Pooh videos, and an eight year old boy who still couldn’t read would need more help than Joy’s tutoring. Even though Joy and Stacey work towards forgiveness and reconciliation, I couldn’t overcome my distaste at the idea of two sisters sleeping with the same man or fully accept their rapprochement.
Several events and circumstances are never fully explained, even at the novella’s three-hanky conclusion, but given the story’s potency, it’s not hard to take them on faith. Kristin Hannah’s brand of Women’s Fiction is tailor-made for the holiday season; check your skepticism at the door and enjoy this comforting read.