One of the loveliest things about the Christmas novel genre is how they often feel like a great warm, festive hug just when you need it the most.
While Christmas is for many people the most wonderful time of the year, it does arrive hot on the heels of 12 months of stressful, constant activity, and while there is joy and decking of the halls going on, there is also a palpable exhaustion and sense that life is way too much.
Novels like Jenny Colgan’s The Christmas Surprise go a long way to remedying this sense of exhausting ennui, because they imagine a fantasy festive world where, like sitcoms, everything turns out all right in the end.
Which is, when you think about it, exactly what the season offers us.
We probably know deep down that life is never that tidy or perfect, and that neat happy endings are ridiculously rare, but at Christmas time we wholly buy into the fact that unfettered justice, unconditional love and heartwarming inclusion aren’t just possible but pretty much par for the course.
The Christmas Surprise offers all of this and more, while keeping an eye on the fact that for all the loveliness and blissful bonhomie of the season, that life will still throw problems your way and all you can do is hope the season is strong enough to handle them.
“Christmas was over. The baubles had been carefully wrapped, the tinsel packed up, the great tree that stood in the little village of Lipton, nestled amongst the rolling Derbyshire hills, taken down, its hundreds of white lights coiled away and stored in the old timbered attic of the red Lion pub.” (P. 1)
In real life, that’s often a great, big Grinch-like “NO” but in gloriously wonderful novels like The Christmas Surprise, it’s a “YES”, perhaps not immediately but eventually, with everything ending with a delicious sense that all the promise of Christmas can be fulfilled even in the most trying of circumstances.
The Christmas Surprise takes us back to the small village in Derbyshire where we first met Rosie Hopkins in Welcome to Rosie Hopkins’ Sweetshop of Dreams (2012) and Christmas at Rosie Hopkins’ Sweetshop (2013), a young woman who gave up her life in London as a nurse to care for her ageing great-aunt Lilian who she adores and who adores her, with some affectionately acidic bon mots, right back.
Rosie has found great happiness in the village, falling for Stephen, the rebel school teacher son of the local landed gentry, and running her sweet shop which is, as is essential in these novels, the centre of village life.
There is, of course, a cast of delightfully idiosyncratic characters, all of whom, well for the most part anyway, love and adore Rosie and Stephen, who have found the home they both needed in each other and in this lovely little village.
It’s all sound perfectly wonderful, doesn’t it?
Which is the point, naturally; Colgan has crafted a world for Rosie in which there is love and inclusion but there are problems to be dealt with, problems which, as in The Christmas Surprise can pose all hazard of obstacles to finding true and lasting happiness.
We all know how it will end up, but the true delight of Colgan’s novels, and especially The Christmas Surprise which begins with the most seditiously fun recap ever encountered in a novel, earning the author massive brownie points before you even reach the novel proper, is how much you have getting there.
The characters are beautifully, fully realised, even the ones who exist purely to add background colour and personality to the village, and you get a reassuring sense of real people, though understandably heightened at times for narrative convenience, and they interact with a vivacity that makes you wish you lived in a place as inclusively loving.
Not everything is perfect and thankfully so – where would the dramatic fun be in a novel where everyone was blissfully happy all the time?
The Christmas Surprise does have its moments where things look dark and dire, and while you suspect rabbits will be pulled out hats and wands will be successfully waved just in the nick of time, you still ache for Rose and Stephen as they confront a whole of unexpected issues and developments, which while ostensibly good, come with their challenges.
“The large hut, with its plain plank walls and rough wooden floor, had been transformed. What felt like miles of thick holly had bene hung in great luxuriant arches around the walls, and the fairy lights were already going up and being tested, creating great walls of shimmering white. Each corner contained a Christmas tree; they were being lavishly decorated – no wonder the hotel had been losing money, thought Rosie – with little rocking horses, silver bells, red ribbons and hanging gingerbread men for the children. Rosie would add her own supply of chocolate Santas.” (P. 287)
Giving up too much of the plot of The Christmas Surprise would take you too far into spoiler territory but suffice to say that the surprise part of the title is very much a shock, though a delightful one to the system, for Rosie and Stephen and sets in train a host of other narrative twists and turns that have the potential to upset their happy lives in ways they can handle but would prefer left them alone to chart their previously idyllic course.
Diving into The Christmas Surprise feels like Christmas made flesh, as if in the paperback book in your hands, you are holding the very distillation of what festive happiness means.
That’s a big call, and you could be forgiven for thinking of that as some kind of overreach but the fact of the matter is that skilled writers of the genre such as Colgan, who infuse their characters with likeable vitality and their dialogue with captivating wit and whimsy and their plot with challenges and hope, really do bring Christmas right into your hands.
They craft the kinds of festive tales that defy the cynicism we all have to some degree or another, regardless of how much we love the season, that Christmas can never fully deliver on its tinsel-bedecked hype, and happily take us to places like a small The Christmas Surprise village in Derbyshire where all our hopes and dreams actually find some sort of realisation.
This matters especially in years like 2020, when COVID-19 has ravaged the sanctity and safety of life as we know it, and we all the heartwarming, life-affirming hope and love we can get.
The book may be six years old but its power to transform our drab weary lives into magical Christmas ones remains undiminished as we meet Rosie and Stephen and their gorgeous assemblage of friends and family, and we remember that life is special, our loved ones even more so and that it is this season that brings it all to the fore and makes us glad to be alive.