Married By Christmas … hmm, thought Miss Bates, inspie historical: low angst, a lot of baking, a little marriage-of-convenience … she liked that “by” in the title, build-up to Christmas! Hurrah! … Click went the Netgalley button back in the day. There’s nothing like Miss B. hoisted on her own petard: Kirst’s novel turned out to be more interesting, more riddled with pain and sexier, yes, sexier!, than most inspies. Miss B. is disappointed she missed out on the previous four books in the late 19th-century, Tennessee-set Smokey Mountain Matches series. Her heart dipped to see that Married By Christmas was fifth in the series: series, after the first three volumes, pretty much fizzle out and die, wane-in-quality has been Miss B.’s usual experience. She was surprised and delighted that she enjoyed Kirst’s effort as much as she did. It didn’t break any molds. You may certainly lob inspie-problematics at it any day; to Miss Bates, however, in the season’s glow and with a generous heart, she thought it was a lovely romance about redemption and second chances.
The blurb offers a weak idea of its content:
Wherever Caleb O’Malley goes, trouble follows, and trouble is the last thing Rebecca Thurston needs. But when Caleb appears – gravely wounded – at Rebecca’s Smokey Mountain cabin, she can’t turn him away. His life depends on her kindness, but she never anticipated it would lead to an unwanted proposal.
Caleb never forgave himself for the accident that ended Rebecca’s engagement and destroyed her life. He doesn’t want to hurt her again. But after a week recuperating at her cabin, there is only one way for Caleb to protect both their reputations from scandal. Neither of them wants to tie the knot, but as Rebecca and Caleb spend time together, will they find there’s more to their marriage than convenience?
There’s more depth to this novel than the blurb suggests. It comes from Caleb and Becca’s shared history and conflicted feelings. Together from school age, Caleb and Becca fought and had fun together, grew up together. They shared a mutual friend, Adam Tierney: Becca chose Adam to marry; and then, at a wild night-time prank with Caleb, Adam was injured and permanently disabled. Though it was an accident and Caleb too was hurt, Rebecca harbors resentment and anger against him. But it doesn’t measure up to the guilt and self-loathing Caleb himself feels. When a wounded Caleb collapses at Rebecca’s cabin, old hurts, fresh affronts, and rediscovered secret passions rise to the surface of their damaged relationship. Adam was the “safe” choice for Becca; when Adam abandoned their engagement and left town, Rebecca took his rejection to heart, grew her wounded pride by watering it with anger directed towards Caleb. Losing her parents and becoming the sole care-taker of her younger sister, Amy, has only added to a burden that Caleb is too keenly aware of.
From chapter one, hurt, bleeding, and helpless, Caleb is Rebecca’s chance to soften her heart; the potential is already seeded in Rebecca. When she rescues the injured Caleb from freezing outside her cabin, when she brings him in as a good Samaritan ought, the seed of what she can be is evident. No matter how angry she is, “compassion warred with long-nursed resentment.” Something Miss Bates appreciates about inspirational romance is the opportunity, through prayer and reflection, for a character to change. Not that other sub-genres of romance don’t contain this hopeful message, they do; and, it is to the genre’s credit that it can portray the best in people. However, in inspirational fiction, and Kirst’s has this in spades, the dialogue between supplicant-character and God is particularly attractive to Miss Bates’ sensibility: because it says that a person need not shoulder life’s burdens alone, that meditative waiting is as possible a venue for figuring out what to do as is ratiocination. Rebecca and Caleb (though Kirst’s novel is cursed with the equally annoying habit of the inspirational romance to portray characters who remain too long, too stubbornly and too stupidly in their “blind” phase) through prayer and reflection, spurred by being thrown together at first in the cabin and then in a townspeople- and reputation-driven marriage, are able to make changes. Rebecca comes to see Caleb once more as a friend, not the enemy who took her fiancé, and moreover, as a good, caring, loving man. Caleb, on the other hand, has loved Rebecca forever, but persists in seeing himself as unworthy. As Rebecca softens towards him and admits he was not at fault for Adam’s accident, he comes to see himself differently. To the last moments of the HEA, he always gives Becca the freedom to make her own decisions about what she wants from him. He hopes, however, most sexily!
Kirst adds an element to bring Becca and Caleb together that Miss Bates found appealing: mutual, powerful physical attraction. Hallelujah chorus breaks out here! From the moment Caleb opens his pain-filled eyes at Becca, the storm raging outside is reflected within. His dark and mesmeric gaze captures her: her body is fully aware of him and he of her. Physical draw and desire are sustained beautifully throughout the novel. Becca is always aware of Caleb’s body: his broad shoulders, thighs, dark eyes, strong hands, his sensuous lips kicked up in a smile. Caleb, in turn, is always aware of Becca’s green eyes, soft hands, her wrists, her waist when he holds her: when she occasionally touches him, he is electrified by the contact, as is she. There is more desire and yearning in the two kisses they share than reams of pages of sexual descriptions in explicit romance novels. Maybe because that is the key word that the explicit romance has buried: yearning, a desire for the other’s physical presence and touch.
Accompanying Caleb and Rebecca’s marriage-of-convenience, which was anything but (fraught with mixed-up feelings of love and resentment, love and guilt) was a romantic suspense plot that explained how Caleb ended up hurt and helpless outside of Rebecca’s cabin. The suspense plot, a disappointment for Miss Bates, was an argument, in a way, both for and against vigilante justice. Against vis-à-vis the criminal, but all for Caleb going uber-alpha protective and pursuing those who threaten his wife: at least, the violence is kept to a minimum and Caleb reverts from his he-man phase to a gentler, more understanding figure. The strength of the novel lies in Becca and Caleb’s slow-simmer, with the occasional smoulder, romance, in acute physical awareness and gentle banter. (As a matter of fact, these two elements are so intense and fun that the HEA falls a little flat.) Nevertheless, Miss Bates most enjoyed this lovely little romance, even if the holiday aspect of it was at a minimum. In Karen Kirst’s Married By Christmas, Miss Bates found evidence of “a mind lively and at ease,” Emma.
Karen Kirst’s Married By Christmas, published by Harlequin, has been available at the usual places, in the usual formats, since October 7th.
Miss Bates is grateful to Harlequin Books for an e-ARC, via Netgalley.
Have you read any inspirational romance that does a good job of portraying the physical attraction and physicality of the heroine and hero?