Christmas is supposed to be the most wonderful time of the year.
Or so the 1963 evergreen classic by Edward Pola and George Wyle would have us believe, what with “kids jingle belling”, “everyone telling you to be of good cheer” and “caroling out in the snow” (unless you’re in Australia where sand makes a perfectly good, and much warmer, substitute).
But what if your boyfriend of five years chooses the lead up to Christmas to decide he’d rather be with someone else, dumping you on your first big date in quite some time, just when you’ve convinced yourself that going to the ballet, where your friend is performing and your other bestie has done the set design, is going to be the big romantic revival you both so desperately need?
Not so wonderful then, right?
Not so wonderful at all, thinks thirty-year-old Claudia, the very flawed and gloriously real protagonist oh Lisa Dickenson’s The Twelve Dates of Christmas, who finds herself not only sans her boyfriend Seth (who’s a philandering cad as it turns out), but having to decide where to take her career from this point on when an offer too good to refuse comes her way.
It’s a lot to take in at once, and like many of us, Claudia collapses in on herself, weeping to her BFF Penny, and seeking solace with her other bestie Nick, both of whom she’s known since she was a child, and with whom she enjoys the closest, most intimate relationships of her now-listing to one side life.
“I want to feel like that, Claudia thought with the tiniest glow of clarity. She would feel like that. She was going to embrace Christmas in London and all it had to offer. There were a thousand festivities taking place in the capital this month that Seth would never have enjoyed with her, but Seth was gone. And she wouldn’t let it drift by for another year; she was ready to feel some Christmas magic again.” (P.113)
She needs them more than ever right now, standing in the ruins of her existing life and absolutely uncertain where to head next.
On track at one point to become a ballet dancer like Penny performing the likes of The Nutcracker at the Royal Opera House in London until a fall led to the derailment of her artistic career, Claudia is caught in the past, working at a popular dancing supplies store and full of regret that she is not as much a part of the ballet scene she once coveted (and still does) as Penny and Nick.
It’s in the middle of this most serious of existential crises that the rom-com element of The Twelve Dates of Christmas kicks into delightful escapist, deliberately festive high gear.
Where real life would dictate much crying (thought that does happen) and morosely extended period of ice cream eating and photo deleting, Claudia, living with Penny temporarily, finds herself on a successful of dates, some horrid, others magical, all of them upsetting what she thought she know of herself, what she wants and where she wants to head.
Each of the dates, many of which take place with Christmas tragic Nick who may or may not be interested in her, and who is as hunky gorgeous as they come, both physically and emotionally, sets in chain all kinds of magical, and often very funny moments where the would-be ballerina has to grapple with a series of existential crises right at the very busiest, and right now at least, the least wonderful time of the year.
As we witness Claudi’s many ups and downs in her search for direction and happiness, we get to luxuriate in the delightful wonder that is London at Christmas.
From sampling the delights of the Winter Wonderland in Hyde Park, unfortunately with odious rich kid Eddie, to caroling in St. Paul’s Cathedral and shopping on a gorgeously-lit Oxford Street, The Twelve Dates of Christmas is as much a love letter to the British glories of the season as much as it a documenting of Claudia’s trial by (chestnut roasting) seasonal fire.
It becomes well near impossible not to be seduced and immerse yourself in the deliciousness of Dickenson’s depiction of a fairytale London Christmas, rendered so perfectly and in such lavishly joyful detail that it’s hard not to immerse yourself fully and completely in the rom-com lush fabulousness of December in the British capital.
No wonder that Claudia, bereft and lost at first, finds it in herself to dive back into life again since with all that wonder and magic happening right outside her doorstep – she handily lives in Kensington, right in the heart of the city – helped along by the attentions of one particular man who, in appealingly typical rom-com fashion, is as right for her as Seth, the ex, is wrong.
“‘It’s not that I don’t want to be like you, it’s just …’ Claudia tried to form her words [to her mother]. ‘No matter how much adventure you had, it never seemed to be enough. You never seemed satisfied. What if I get everything I’m looking for and then start feeling in a rut again?’
‘That’s a risk you’re going to have to take. You can’t not take risks just because they might not suit you in the long run. If they’re worth taking then they’re worth taking. You think I regret for one second taking the risk of marrying your dad and having you? Just because an adventure comes to an end, doesn’t mean it wasn’t worth doing.’
Claudia mulled this over. ‘I’m scared'” (P. 324)
While The Twelve Dates of Christmas is packed to the rafters with all kinds of implausibilities – her dumping is swiftly followed by romantic opportunity, romantic loss, friendships highs and low, all stacked on so thick it’s wonder Claudia has the time to eat, sleep or work – neatly keeping in line with rom-com convention which dictates a rise, a fall and a final act rise in fortunes, it still somehow works because who doesn’t want to be lost in that kind of diversionary confection?
The Twelve Dates of Christmas works because Claudia is an appealing and very grounded protagonist who, granted she makes some dumb decisions (haven’t we all in the midst of life going royally to shit) is allowed all manner of over the top moments, the kinds we’d all like to all experience, especially in the face of a brutally broken heart.
If you are the type of person who finds themselves sighing through Sleepless in Seattle or hoping that Sandy B will land the guy in While You Were Sleeping, and you like your heroines winsome, British and quirkily plucky and fun, with loyal friends, family and romantic suitors in festive abundance, then you love the gossamer loveliness and gently farcical humour of The Twelve Dates of Christmas, a novel which celebrates with gusto the joys of the season, the endless capacity of the human heart to heal and move on and the fact that, all occasional appearances to the contrary, this really is, if you’re open it (Claudia finally gets there, and trust you’ll be thrilled and sighing with warmth and fuzzyness when she does), the most wonderful time of the year.