What does Merry Smith want for Christmas?
Well, she’ll take time with her gorgeous, close-knit family including quality time baking cookies with her 18-year-old brother Patrick (who has Down syndrome) and looking after Mum Robin who has multiple sclerosis, shopping for delicious treats in amongst the normal weekly grocery shop and soaking up a brightly-lit downtown Seattle, when time allows which it usually doesn’t thanks to suffocating work demands, and eating literal chestnuts roasting over an open fire.
What the vivacious young woman, who’s taking a year-long break to do data entry work to fund her special education degree, doesn’t have time for is love, or much of a social life for that matter.
She’d love one but honestly who has the time or the people ever since her best friend in the world left town, leaving Merry to do ten-hour days at work all while dodging the rules-obsessed attention of her handsome but unfriendly boss, Jayson Bright, who doesn’t seem to have much time to be a decent, caring human being.
Or does he? Perhaps Merry hasn’t really seen the real Jayson and he hasn’t taken the time to step off the treadmill of family connections and high-level work aspirations.
With a title like Merry and Bright it doesn’t take much guessing to deduce that Merry and Jayson are pretty much destined to end up in some sort of rom-com-ish romantic entanglement during the festive season but even so Debbie Macomber, who is well-known for her annual festive tales of love in a time of tinsel and eggnog, has some fun with how it all plays out.
“‘Merry Smith,’ she repeated slowly, still having trouble taking all this in. Looking at her profile as it came up on the screen, she withheld a groan. Seeing Bogie with her pseudonym listed below, she figured it was highly unlikely anyone would send her a Mix & Mingle message. Anyone looking at the photo would think her profile was all one big joke. No one wanted to date a dog.” (P. 17)
For a start, Merry is given a birthday present by her parents and Patrick of a profile on Mix & Mingle, a dating site that offers the usual assortment of people looking for love online.
Merry isn’t expecting too much and so throws a pic of the family’s pet dog Bogie on her profile photo, a novel move in our perfect Instagram selfie which attracts the attention of Jayson who, at the urging of his cousin and best friend Cooper, who has just found love, true love, decides to set what the internet can deliver him.
He is, unknown to Merry, a far cry from the aloof, cold-blooded professional whom Merry encounters each day in the office.
Coming from a rich family who treated him as less of a son that an interruption to their marital troubles and self-indulgent adulting, Jayson is alone and lonely, putting his faith in his corporate career, which comes with bigger than normal demands this December thanks to a looming make-or-break report, to deliver life satisfaction.
He is the archetypal lost soul looking for redemption, and while both he and Merry are in some ways stock standard characters ripe for rom-com transformation, they are also invested with Macomber with some raw humanity that makes their story feel not quite as rote as it might have been.
With overtones of You’ve Got Mail – quite how is best left to the reading but suffice to say that assumptions and perceptions, some right, some wrong, play a major role in fuelling the narrative – Merry and Bright is all about opposite attracting and romantic misunderstanding, the kind that have given breath to rom-coms since time immemorial.
In that respect, the novel is not exactly something out of the rom-com box.
It ticks all the boxes you’d expect, even down to the fight that temporarily derails the path to true love, but the fact is that Macomber creates such a cosy web of romantic possibility and future happiness that you just know awaits the couple, that you are happy to buy into it all, hook, line, and red-and-green-paper wrapped sinker.
It helps massively of course that it is set at Christmas which comes with all kinds of romantic promises and expectations of its own; who wouldn’t find wandering down brightly-lit streets close to Christmas with someone you are really starting to like, the shops alive with decoration and kids happily waiting in line for Santa, joyously, gloriously romantic.
Macomber takes all of these elements, standard as that might be, and brings them all together into a novel that feels like the kind of festive hug all of us need right now at the end of pandemic year two, all the more prescient because the novel was written and published in 2017.
“Glancing at the time on her phone, she saw that they had sixty minutes to spare. A later dinner gave her even more time to spend with Jayson, allowing her to get to know him better without him suspecting she was Merry.
Dangerous game or not, she couldn’t be more pleased or excited.” (P. 150)
While some of the exposition feels a little clunky at the beginning, Macomber pretty quickly hits her stride, ushering reading into a winter Christmas wonderland where reality can be banished by an unexpected meeting online.
Have any of us ever really fallen for our bosses via an online persona? Has corporate toxicity ever been set to rights by one night of coffee and overtime? Likely not but then the whole point of books like Merry and Bright is to take all those implacable, impossible-to-solve thorny problems that bedevil our day-to-day reality and pretend they can be solved by love.
Especially at Christmastime where we are hoping against hope, eyes crunched tight and brows furrowed in concentration, that when we open our eyes the world will be every bit as kind and wonderous and lifechanging as a lot of festive fare claims it will be.
Life isn’t usually that kind but oh, how we want it to be; Macomber taps into the Christmas wish fulfillment in Merry and Bright with characters who feel as real and alive as you’re going to get in a rom-com, a sense of seasonal time and place that feels positively magical, and the prospect of trajectory-altering love, the kind that seems elusive normally but which somehow finds a fertile home at the most wonderful time of the year.