Miss Bates isn’t sure what’s happened to her ARC-TBR lately, but there’s a strange conglomeration of slightly-off-romance narratives, like Reay’s Lizzy and Jane, or a recent cozy mystery that failed and will appear in an “exorcising dnfs” post soon. Fiona Harper’s Make My Wish Come True follows in the same vein and is more women’s fiction (one cut above chick-lit in Miss Bates’ no-no universe) than romance. The primary relationship account in Harper’s novel is the working out of a sibling relationship and the romances, one per sister, are secondary. Nevertheless, having enjoyed Harper’s 2012 Snowbound In the Earl’s Castle, with its aristocrat hero and stained-glass restorer heroine, Miss Bates was willing to tolerate yet another sisters-working-out-an-acrimonious-relationship narrative (and so soon after Reay’s similar themed). Make My Wish Come True added delight with some greatly humorous moments, third-person narration, and significantly less ponderous content. It also helped make the women’s-fiction medicine go down when Harper’s novel echoed two of Miss Bates’ sentimental film favourites, The Holiday (as a matter of fact, younger sister, Gemma, watches this in one scene) and more brilliant fare, Shirley Valentine. (Miss Bates wishes she’d noted this Christmas-set novel; she’d have made it one of her November-to-December Christmas-themed review-posts.)
Harper’s prologue hints at a problematic family and subsequent difficult sibling relationship between Juliet and Gemma. Older sister, Juliet, takes on the motherly role and Gemma plays devil-may-care baby sister. Now, years later, Juliet at 40 and Gemma 35, one Christmas holiday swap brings everything wrong with their relationship from simmering to boiling over. Juliet, divorced mother of four, resident of Tunbridge Wells, England, has always given her family the perfect Christmas, complete with perfectly placed lights, home-made, organic meals, and overflowing, hand-crafted stockings. But there is trouble in Juliet’s paradise: her divorce left her smarting, stressed, and disheartened. Her teen-age daughter is acting out; her to-do list is out of control, her great-aunt’s dementia-ridden behaviour sees frequent calls from the local constabulary, and her staid universe enters post-divorce dangerous waters. Her helpful, steady, possibly romantically interested next-door-neighbour, Will Turner, is the only friend who helps rather than hinders her. Enter her flighty sister, Gemma, whose “exotic” career as an assistant film director has her flying around the world with handsome movie stars. What Juliet doesn’t recognize are Gemma’s long hours, temperamental stars, and harried schedule.
What Harper created in the two sisters is a Martha-Mary dichotomy and a conflict wherein never the twain can meet in understanding and sympathy. Juliet and Gemma love each other, but put them in the same room and past and present resentments and misunderstandings surface. Their Martha-and-Mary personalities are at play when Gemma breezes into Tunbridge Wells with bags of presents for her nieces and nephews and ready apology for leaving Juliet on her own for Christmas while she lies on a Caribbean beach. Juliet is furious and overwhelmed; Gemma is petulant and guilt-ridden. Gemma offers to give Juliet her plane ticket and vacation while she cares for the children and gives the strays Juliet picks up and succors for Christmas a decent holiday dinner. The set-up is obvious: Juliet and Gemma will spend their holiday in each others’ shoes and arrive at sympathy for the other. Juliet and Gemma’s respective hilarious mis- and adventures make this warm, witty novel quite palatable. In their homemaker-versus-career-women friction are sown the seeds of empathy when they swap lives over the holiday. Deprived of ferrying the children, rescuing Great-Aunt Sylvia, and her ever-present to-do list, Juliet is forced to reevaluate her life in the sun and surf of St. Lucia … enter one gorgeous Italian in Marco Capello and she has to find her womanhood beyond children, PTA, and church bazaar. Enter Gemma into Juliet’s life and she in turn must realize what it means to be responsible for anyone beyond herself, how to ask for and accept help in the form of one Stick-Up-His-Butt handsome neighbour, and re-evaluate her, if not contempt, ignorance of what Juliet gives up to be everything to everyone, a help-meet and friend. The lessons are hard-won and yet told with a light touch; the emotion is believable, even while the plot is derivative.
Harper is an adept writer. Miss Bates appreciated, in particular, her accomplished hand at a light, but not frivolous, control of narrative tone. She enjoyed her skillful alternating of the inner and outer worlds of two distinct yet equally congenial characters in the two sisters. Harper writes with ease and humour, without losing sight of how her sister-characters must compromise for each other without condemning each other. It is particularly poignant when Juliet and Gemma find the roots of their animosity in their differing perspectives about their childhoods in a family where the father carried the burden of care for two girls and a depressed mother. The romances are interesting and present their own set of challenges for the two sisters: Marco Capello turns out to be a hard-won lesson for Juliet and Will Turner may potentially drive another wedge between the sisters. But Harper’s romance apprenticeship doesn’t disappoint: there be HEAs for Juliet and Gemma.
Miss Bates can’t say that she’ll follow Fiona Harper into her new-found narrative venture. However, if you’re looking for heart-felt, poignant, and humorous women’s fiction with romance-lite, then in Make My Wish Come True, Miss Bates found evidence of “almost pretty,” Northanger Abbey.
Fiona Harper’s Make My Wish Come True was published by HQN/Harlequin and available since November 3rd, 2014, in the usual formats at your favourite vendors. Miss Bates gratefully received an e-ARC from HQN/Harlequin, via Netgalley.