For many people, Christmas is an impossibly romantic time of the year.
While this applies to the heat of a Southern Hemisphere festive season too, it is far more easily conjured in the Northern side of the globe where falling snow, twinkling lights in early dark nights and decorations placed voluminously and well on old cityscapes create a prevailing sense of a world lost to banality and monochrome, and temporarily open to wonder, possibility and love.
Jo Lovett taps into this vein of heady festive warmth and good cheer beautifully with her novel The Mistletoe Pact which brings together childhood friends, Evie Green and Dan Marshall, in Melting Bishop, the cutely-named but quintessentially English village they call home on 23 December 23, 2013, where they kiss under the mistletoe and make a pact that in eight years time when they are thirty they will marry each other, assuming of course they are still single.
Naturally, neither of them thinks that will be the case in almost a decade’s time, drawing on the fevered optimism of youth that good things are all but inevitable and a perspective that sees eight years as a lifetime of choices yet to be made, rather than not very much time at all.
We already know that they drunkenly act on this pact in 2021, waltzing down, or is that staggering, down the aisle in Las Vegas where they have gathered with a host of other friends including Dan’s sister and Evie’s best friend Sasha, and her boyfriend Angus to host a lot of birthdays all at once but mostly Evie’s which falls on Christmas Eve.
“She [Evie] turned her head carefully and took another look at Dan. He was still asleep, facing her, his head nestled on his own lumpy, pink heart-shaped pillow. Funny how someone’s face could look different when they were asleep. Awake, he laughed a lot. In repose, his features looked quite harsh. Still gorgeous, though.
And still lovely, kind, funny Dan. She really hoped that last night wouldn’t have ruined their friendship.” (P. 8)
Yes, Ross and Rachel from Friends, and no doubt a host of altogether more non-fictional people have got there before them, but as they slowly stir in their heart-shaped, pink-hued room and realise they have not only gotten married but done the deed after years and years of U.R.S.T. (unresolved sexual tension), they wonder if planning the idea of a pact was really a good idea?
I mean, look at the mess the very idea of being together has possibly made of their friendship – how on earth can they go back to just being friends?
That’s assuming of course that they even want to, a will-they, won’t-they dynamic that Lovett plays with to glorious rom-com effect as The Mistletoe Pact bounces giddily back and forth over times then and now, exploring how Dan, who is a doctor, and Evie, who is a teacher, got from there to here and how all their near-misses might suggest they are harbouring some very deep feelings for each other.
Naturally, they are, or this novel would not much of a romantic comedy make, but having feelings, and admitting to those feelings are entirely different things, especially when respective family backgrounds might suggest that happily ever after is not necessarily a foregone conclusion.
You know going in that Dan and Evie will end up together since The Mistletoe Pact occupies a very specific and all-too-(happily)-predictable genre, one with well-used and much-expected tropes and cliches, but what marks this novel out from the pack is that Lovett has a great deal of fun getting to the known finish line.
There are the Vegas scenes at the start, of course, which are exactly what you’d expect of people awaking to wedding bliss, or rather its panicked absence the morning after, and yet which have a great deal of social media-shaping fun with the idea of what this kind of “mistake” (is it though? Maybe timing wise but not destiny wise, no) could mean for a couple who remain convinced, for self preservation, if nothing else, they are friends and only friends.
Much of the enjoyment of what could’ve been a hackneyed series of events in Vegas comes from Lovett’s crafting of a vibrantly-realised cast of friends and family, with Evie and Dan at the centre, who give the narrative a real verve and sense of groundedness, which is not an easy thing to pull in any rom-com, with their outrageously OTT premises and credibility-stretching execution.
Helping too, as Evie and Dan move on from this awkward point in time, and we as readers dive back in time to see what got the inevitable couple together in the first place, is the fact that there’s real emotion at play here.
Some occasionally stilted dialogue aside, The Mistletoe Pact percolates for the greater part with warm and witty conversations that feel like the ones that would take place between two people who know each other well and who are constantly trying to feel out if there is anything more than friendship between them, but also between the wider cast of parents, kids, and friends who feel like a cohesive group who love each other (well, mostly).
“Dan laughed. God. Evie really hoped that one day she’d stop going squishy inside at the sound of his laugh and the way his eyes crinkled and basically, just everything about him.” (P. 238)
Putting together wonderful characters and sparkling dialogue in settings that are both cosily domestic and seasonally exciting, The Mistletoe Pact is that rare rom-com that actually feels like it has even a shred of a hope of happening.
Granted, we read (and watch) romantic comedies for their escapist qualities, which The Mistletoe Pact has in heartwarmingly diverting abundance, but it’s also nice to be reassured that maybe, just maybe, this could actually happen.
We know it likely won’t but oh if it could; Lovett draws on this wellspring of hope flying in the face of reality, encouraged by a season in which we are encouraged to think anything might be possible, and crafts a beguiling tale of love found, lost and found all over again, embellishing the tale all the more with the sheer romance of Christmas which doesn’t take much egging on to feel as if the magical could easily replace the commonplace.
Christmas is a time of wonder and hopefulness, when we turn our backs on reality and pretend, with a fervency borne of great need for things to be different, and transformatively so, that our lives will change not just in December but in the days and months that follow, and as we subsume ourselves happily in the trials and travails but also the magic dust joyfulness of Evie and Dan’s messy path to happiness ever after, The Mistletoe Pact makes this festive wishfulness all feel very real, given life and possibility by playful premise, vivacious characters, fun dialogue and sense of emotionality that nods to the season but also hopes things will be every bit as wonderful in the eleven other months of the year.