There must be some serious pressure in the publishing world for bestselling authors to release short holiday novels around Christmas time. John Grisham has one, David Baldacci has a few, mother/daughter-in-law team Mary and Carol Higgins Clark put them out year after year. Rather than get left behind, Jacquelyn Mitchard made the decision — or her publishers made it for her — to jump on that bandwagon.
Perhaps best known for her debut novel, the Oprah's Book Club selection The Deep End of the Ocean, Mitchard has managed to produce some fine follow-up novels. However, her latest, Christmas, Present, is shallow, weak and barely evokes emotion from the reader.
This Christmas Eve is Elliot and Laura Banner's fourteenth anniversary. Although they had planned a trip to Paris for their fifteenth anniversary, Elliot wants to make sure the fourteenth is not overlooked. After an evening at Cirque du Soleil, Laura develops an on-the-spot headache and demands to be taken to the hospital. It becomes immediately apparent that she has a ruptured aneurysm and may not live through the night. The story then revolves around Laura using what little time she has left to get her life into order as the people around her scramble to assist fulfilling her demands.
The characters are weak and poorly developed. Granted it is a short novel; still, I felt no connection to any of them -- least of all to the dying Laura. She and Elliot have a bunch of kids. Could be three, could be four; so many names get thrown around, they all mesh after a few pages. At one point, Laura does not even wish to hold her youngest child. Why? The child won't remember it, and after she suffers a seizure or two before dying, she won't remember it.
Laura becomes very business-like, which is fine. She never loses her cool. Not once -- not while visiting with her children, her husband, her siblings, or her mother. And through part of the book she reveals to the reader some buried secrets that may make you like Laura even less. She shatters with the revelation any sympathy you might have been able to muster for this cardboard character. Without spoiling the secret for those who still wish to read the novel, Laura goes on to forgive herself for her past actions by saying what she had done had not been that wrong, rather than to confront and confess her -- dare I say it -- sins.
The description and narrative in Christmas, Present are well-written, but with forced and unnatural-sounding dialogue and characters who elicit minimal sympathy, much less other emotions, even that is not enough to rescue this book.