Cover illustration © Paul Youll.
This time of year I usually pull out a favorite book or two with a Christmas theme, or at least a Christmas chapter, but this year Ellen went to the library and brought home some Christmas-themed books for herself to read, and this was one. I’m a fan of Connie Willis’s novels, so of course I wanted to read it.
Unfortunately, it did not start off well for me. Willis begins with a short essay outlining what she loves and hates about Christmas, including stories and movies. She follows up at the end with a list of favorites and recommendations. All good so far, though her dislike for “It’s A Wonderful Life” is a little jarring.
The title story, “Miracle,” continues on this theme, with a young woman working in a big city office trying to get all her Christmas tasks finished, and being plagued by a Christmas spirit with very different ideas on how she should do that. Willis has a liking for a certain kind of plot that reminds me of some 1940s Hollywood screwball comedies: the main character is competent and trying to accomplish many tasks, but it constantly stymied and blocked by unhelpful people and events in an ever escalating way that makes the character frantic, and me as a reader annoyed. It works in a screwball comedy IF it’s funny, but this was not. I had to give up on the story, the plot device got in the way of any Christmas spirit Willis may have wanted to convey. The second story, “Inn” used the same plot device, so I didn’t finish that one, either.
“In Coppelius’s Toyshop” is short, a nightmare of Christmas shopping. Not a fun one. “The Pony” is also short, and I liked it better. What if the presents we wanted so desperatedly as children came to us as adults?
“Adaptation” is another sad story about a divorced man trying to get some time with his son for the holidays, while at the same time dealing with a very difficult and demanding job at a department store. Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” is mixed in, and there are some good moments, but I left the story a little depressed.
Finally, in “Cat’s Paw,” a story I really liked. It’s a murder mystery along the lines of Agatha Christie’s “Hercule Poirot” stories, and only a Christmas story by the time of year, but Willis handles the characters and detection elements well, and there are some interesting side issues that I also appreciated reading about. The end is a nice twist, too.
“Newsletter” is pretty good, about people suddenly becoming much nicer than usual at the holidays, and why. Perhaps it’s not such a good thing, in this case.
“Epiphany” is the final story, and I also liked this one, though I found the ending a little unsatisfying. A pastor has had a personal epiphany that leads him to go on a sudden road trip across America in the midst of a fierce winter storm. Through many delays and roadblocks, he meets some friends and gradually figures out what it all means. I have to say this was the only story in the book that gave me a little of the magic of the season.
In all, I’d have to say this is only mildly recommended.
I actually really liked “Miracle,” which I just read while waiting at the doc’s office. Willis likes to riff off classics and put her spin on it–as she did with her use of Death on the Nile, brilliantly. In Miracle, she fuses the two films into the actual events of the story, and does so beautifully, I think. It starts slow and somewhere along, it just had me utterly snagged. It was obvious where the Spirit was leading her-or rather to whom–but the lovely little touches of what folks want and who gets what and the humor of the eco-aware “Chris” spirit. Worked really well for me. 😀 Merry Christmas!