|Luanne Rice’s once complex, nuanced novels have gradually given way to Hallmark Hall of Fame weepers, so it shouldn’t be a surprise that she has joined the ranks of authors releasing sentimental Christmas tales. I don’t read a lot of holiday stories, but the ones that appeal most to readers seem to share certain common elements: characters who are closed off to the joys of the season because of anger or sadness; a budding romance complicated by the characters’ emotional crises; and a miracle that opens their eyes or changes their attitudes. A picturesque or quaint setting doesn’t hurt either. Judged against those criteria, Silver Bells is a moderate success, although readers must judge for themselves if they want to pay $15 for a slender 200 page hardcover.
Every year widower Christopher “Christy” Byrne leaves his tree farm in Nova Scotia and spends a month on the streets of New York City selling Christmas trees with promises of moonlight and magic in each tree branch. This December, however, his familiar sales pitch rings hollow. Although his daughter Bridget accompanies Christy as usual, his son Danny ran away a year ago after a bitter argument over the 16-year-old’s future. Although Christy pursued the search through the City’s police when he returned home, Danny remains missing, and Christy has received only one postcard in the past twelve months to indicate he is still alive.
Catherine Tierney had observed the altercation that separated Christy and Danny, and she felt compassion for both the well-meaning but stubborn father and the loving but impulsive son. She can see that Christy needs help to get through the season, but she’s hardly in a position to offer comfort. Three years ago her beloved husband Brian died on Christmas Eve, and since then the holidays have been only a reminder of everything she has lost. She just wants to put in her hours at the quiet private library where she works, spend a little time with her best friend Lizzie and daughter Rose, and wonder why Brian never made good on his deathbed promise to send her a sign that he is still near. It will take the proverbial Christmas miracle to make Catherine let go of her past, for Christy to let change into his life, and for the mystery of Danny’s disappearance to be solved. Or is it a miracle? Sometimes it’s just a matter of taking the time to look up at something familiar but beautiful and to appreciate the wonders that are always with us.
Okay, so maybe I’m more caught up in Rice’s sentimental mood than I thought I was, but let’s get back to objectivity. Is this book worth your time and/or money? Silver Bells certainly meets the holiday tale’s first requirement: troubled characters who need a dose of holiday magic. Christy Byrne is the story’s only fully-developed individual, and he inspires a host of emotions in the reader. Having grown up desperately poor, he has worked hard to make a better life for his two children and only wants them to be happy, yet he is foolishly blind to Danny’s needs. His stubborn refusal to listen has contributed to Danny’s disappearance, but his guilt is equally as strong as his genuine confusion. Catherine is more of a stock character – the beautiful, grieving widow who spends most of the story in or near tears. Christy refers to her as his angel, and she lacks any edges that would make her seem more interesting and human. Danny and Bridget don’t behave like any adolescents I’ve ever met; Bridget, especially, acts more like a time traveler from the 19th century than a 21st century teenager.
The romance between Christy and Catherine is understated and relies on a few brief but powerful interactions. Their future is left hopeful but slightly unresolved at the story’s conclusion. More successful is the well-timed miracle that changes everyone’s lives; you’d have to be made of stone to be unaffected by the last 50 pages. Rice’s sends a strong message that, in addition to love and attention, parents need to give children the freedom to pursue their own dreams.
If Rice’s secondary moral is for people to appreciate the beauty around them, she makes a wise decision to place the story in New York’s Chelsea neighborhood, where Clement Clark Moore once penned “A Visit from St. Nicholas.” She makes the setting sound so quaint and picturesque that the City’s skyscrapers and millions of pushy inhabitants seem like part of another world. Including a scene at the famous Rockefeller Center Christmas tree lighting ceremony is also a nice touch.
Silver Bells doesn’t break any new ground among holiday tales, and I’d hesitate before spending this much money on a book that can be read within an hour. But if you like sweet, sentimental stories that help you get in the holiday mood, grab your Kleenex box and dig in.