|Must Love Mistletoe is difficult to rate fairly, colored as it was by the reflection of the lights on the Christmas tree and the post-holiday tendency toward the mawkish and maudlin. The book was approached with Grinchian skepticism, and it is fair to say that it while may not quite be “It’s a Wonderful Life,” neither is it a made-for-Lifetime TV holiday movie starring a slightly wilted former somebody (Harry Hamlin, Melissa Sue Gilbert) and featuring a small town, copious snowfall, a magical elf- or angel-type intervention, and the True Meaning of Christmas.
After 10 years away from the family business – The Perfect Christmas – Bailey (yes, like George) is back home in beautiful seaside Coronado, California, to keep the store open and the preserve the tradition (or is it an institution? A landmark?). Her mom and stepfather had been running the place for years, having taken over from her maternal grandparents. Suddenly, however, step-dad is living at a swinging singles complex, mom is depressed and housebound in torn and stained sweatpants and tee-shirts, younger half-brother Harry has gone away to college, and someone (Bailey) has to keep the Christmas kitsch shoppers happy.
Now an L.A. lawyer, Bailey herself is possessed of little Christmas spirit, as is to be expected from one whose entire young life was centered around bringing cheer to other families at the holidays. Nevertheless, Coronado is counting on her to keep the business – a cornerstone of the lucrative tourist trade – open and flourishing during the holiday season. This task, and her self-appointed task of finding out what went wrong between the parents and getting it repaired pronto, would be an awful lot easier to do if someone else hadn’t turned up, literally next door, after a 10 year absence as well.
Finn Jacobson spent his summers and holidays since age 13 with his grandmother because, frankly, he was just too much for his parents to handle 24/7. Over the years his petty misbehavior had escalated into serious misbehavior, so he was shipped down regularly from northern California to live with Grandma Jacobson, the only family member who could tame him. Now he’s back to return the favor, caring for his grandmother as she recovers from a serious bout with pneumonia. Finn is gorgeous as ever; his bad-boy persona has hardened into something like “adult delinquent,” complete with an eye patch that is not just a fashion accessory. Bailey would rather not see Finn, having run away without even a goodbye some ten years prior, skipping out on what was to have been their last summer together before she shipped off to college. Finn, likewise, would rather not see Bailey, having never really healed the broken heart she inflicted. Now, when he’s trying to heal from current wounds, both physical and psychic, he doesn’t need her around to remind him of the pain of losing your first love, your first lover, without explanation. Circumstances, however, are not going to cooperate to keep these two apart. The houses in which they are staying are not only side-by-side, they are practically touching, and their pasts and presents are too entwined to allow them any distance. It’s December 1st on page 1, and we have 25 days and 25 chapters to bring this to a satisfying conclusion.
And satisfying it is, almost to perfection. The plot is so simple as to be practically simple-minded, which is great, as this keeps it from interfering with the characters, the setting, and the story. There are no complex machinations, big misunderstandings, convoluted plot twists: just a nice story, nicely told. Two nice stories, actually. The secondary tale of mom and step-dad Dan is painfully realistic and touchingly presented, just the right counterpoint to Bailey and Finn’s more dramatic coming-to-terms. Both stories center on the compelling question of how a heart, once broken, can be made whole and remain open to the possibility of love.
Bailey and Finn are lovely characters, completely understandable and but not overblown archetypes. Yes, she’s become a soulless big-city attorney, and yes he’s the nerves-of-steel authoritarian enforcer, but their humanity is not erased. Lightly scratch the surface, and what hides behind the perfect girl-next-door façade is laid bare, as is what the bad-boy façade has been built to protect. Their story is also nicely built, which is not always the case in a retro-reunion tale. There is no data dump of back-story in the first chapter or two, but rather a slow unveiling of interesting tidbits, an unwrapping of presents that stretches out all day. And speaking of unwrapping and tidbits, Ridgway does the naughty and nice with just the right sugar and spice. Yum.
Finally, there is the question of whether this is a book that is just too seasonal. Like “It’s a Wonderful Life,” is this meant to be enjoyed only once a year? It is impossible to tell, colored as this reading was by the “Hark the Herald” soundtrack running in the background but what the heck; even if that’s true, the season comes once a year. If you missed it this year, you can put it in your TBR pile and, next thing you know, it will be time to unwrap it.