If you take a close look at many Christmas stories, songs, TV shows and movies, a prevailing theme is that of connectedness, something we all want and crave but which becomes all the more important during the festive season when being with the ones you love becomes as critical to happiness as good food, sparklingly colourful decorations and some judiciously played carols.
Quite how much it matters to have your people around you becomes clear in The Christmas Cookie Club, a novel, the comforting Hallmark film-like title of which belies its emotionally substantive storyline where twelve close friends come together once a year with their home-booked cookies, stories of their past year and a need and want to connect with each other when life has left more than a little battered and brusied.
Held in the home of mid-fifties cookie club founder, Marnie, who is newly in love with decade-younger Jim though she’s loathe to name it love lest he leave or disappoint her like past lovers have done, the club is the start of the holidays seasons for many of its Ann Arbor, Michigan members who mark the journey to Christmas from this one special night.
And while the night itself is special in ways too numerous to count, not least of all because of the support and encouragement it gives to the women, one of whom knowingly remarks “What would we do without one another?”, what makes it a necessity for them all is the opportunity it affords to give them a chance to spill their hearts and receive wise counsel and comfort in return.
“I wipe the table and sweep under the floor. The house is tidy. My cookies are done. The soup is simmering. Eartha Kitt purrs so hurry down the chimney tonight. Everything is perfect.” (P. 29)
Marnie, for instance, who is responsible for many of the women being present due to her wide and enduring connections with a host of women, all of whom have met her at vastly different stages of her life and as a result are acquainted with varying facets of who she is as a person, is waiting for a call from her daughter Sky who has suffered a series of painful miscarriages and a devastating stillbirth.
While she is happily enveloped in the events of the evening, where each woman brings out her cookies – they have to make 13 bags of them, one for each member and one for a nearby hospice to which they’re donated – and explains why she made them and why that matter to her that year, she is acutely aware of whether her phone is buzzing.
It’s an understandably tense and anxious night, and though she has close friend Charlene (who has suffered a heartbreaking loss of her own this past year) a seat or two away, a friend so close that each of their children see either Marnie or Charlene as their second mother, and all the support she needs in friends very near and far, she can’t shake the feeling that the night will be made or broken depending on what Sky says on her call (which will follow a critically important update from her doctor).
For all her jitteriness, Marnie finds solace and joy in readying her home for the night, making her Pecan Butter Balls which have a deeply personal meaning for her, decorating the home and making a delicious soup for the night, and awaiting the arrival of very special friends who give life meaning all year round but especially on the first Monday of December when the club always takes place.
These friends have all arrived with cookies and stories to tell.
One of them is aching to have children of her own but has an older husband with kids from his first marriage who says he is done with that stage of his life while another is sick with worry about what to do about her adulterous father who is having an affair with one of her best friends.
Others have happier things to look forward to such as exuberant “cookie virgin” Sissy (It’s her first year at the club which is strictly capped at a very Christmassy 12 members) who is the mother of the young man with whom Marnie’s 18-year-old is about to have a baby and Laurie who’s relatively newly-adopted daughter from China is thriving in her new home, giving her mother a whole new meaning and purpose.
All of the members of The Christmas Cookie Club have things on their mind, and all need to reaffirm, or in the case of Sissy, discover, that connection with one another in order to make life meaningful and doable.
It’s a special, wonderful night in and of itself but it comes weighed down, in the best possible way, with so much more, all of which Pearlman captures with real empathy and understanding in a novel that is rich in human experience but just as importantly in the power and love of connection and friendship between women.
“A hush follows. We’ve been appreciating the passage of tiem as we pass along, touch, examine, and review containers from years gone by, previous parties. Maybe it’s the time of night, the fact that we know one of us is leaving and one of us is struggling with everyone’s worst fear, the death of a child. And each of us has endured disappointment, sorrow, self-disgust, addiction. And loss.” (P. 219)
With each character essentially the centre of their own chapter, though, of course, they all interact together because even when things aren’t going well, either individually or between them, they remain family who are there for each other no matter what, The Christmas Cookie Club is an entertaining and heartfelt interweaving of deeply personal stories.
There is a decidedly festive feel to proceedings because of the time of year in which the club happens and why it exists at all, but it becomes abundantly and movingly clear that the friendships celebrated that night provide love and a sense of belonging right across the 365 days of the calendar.
The cookies are delicious, the decorations gorgeous and the food beautiful, but what matters most, and matters for everyone at Christmastime especially, is that they connected and supported to and by people who mean the world to them.
Pearlman captures the intimacy of the friendships between club members beautifully, bringing forth, with naturalistic dialogue, rich and efficiently-realised characterisation and a willingness to be boldly and brutally honest, a sense of the innate belonging that comes from people who love each other uncondtionally.
They’re not always perfect friends nor they always get it right, and life can play fast and lose with their closeness at times, whether that’s emotional or physical, but over and over again in The Christmas Cookie Club (which takes place largely on the Monday night with some expositional flashbacks) we witness the power of true, unstinting and sacrificial friendship, which might find form in the cookies each of the women make but which ultimately sustain them for far more than that one night, making the rest of their year and the totality of their lives so much more meaningful and alive.