Miss Bates wasn’t enamoured of the first Marion Lennox romance she read, Her Royal Baby. There was something treacly to it, a heroine too good to be believed, a hero so honorable under his gruff exterior, he makes Capt. von Trapp look like a debauché. But something happened when she read Lennox’s latest, From Christmas To Forever. The elements that irritated suddenly charmed, the syrup goo-y sweetness moved. And Miss Bates lost her Lennox side-eye. Sometime it takes a while to “get” a writer (and sometimes, one never does … delegating said to the heap of “I tried, but she doesn’t work for me.”): to learn to appreciate her thematic concerns, understand her choice of narrative threads, her particular take on the classic romance narrative of encounter/attraction-repulsion/consummation/disintegration, and reconciliation. Lennox clicked for Miss Bates when she saw Lennox as a contemporary Carla Kelly, a Kelly transplanted to a contemporary Australian-set romance. Like Kelly, we find the officiously caring hero, slightly broken but eager to do good in the world heroine, and thematic concern with service and love making for the happiest couples.
What of Lennox’s From Christmas To Forever?, you say, dear reader. What does it offer us by way of a few hours reading pleasure? Plenty, says Miss Bates. Dr. Pollyanna Hargreaves is on her way to Wombat Valley to fill in for Dr. Hugo Denver so he can take his ward, seven-year-old niece Ruby, to the beach for Christmas. On the outskirts of Wombat Valley, Pollyanna encounters Dr. Denver suspended in a truck over a dangerous plunge, with the bleeding accident-prone-and-none-too-bright local, Horace. Miss Bates remembers how Lennox’s Her Royal Baby also wowed her with a great, dramatic opening scene. It was what came after, anti-climax all the way to the end, that disappointed. Not so with From Christmas To Forever. Nothing that followed impressed as the suspense, humour, and virtuoso writing of the opening scene, but the characterization was richer, the authorial rueful awareness of rom conventions hilarious, and the hero and heroine, despite her name, nuanced and compelling. At one point, the hero says of the obstacles in his way towards wooing Polly: “There was no way through this tangle to a happy ending.” Yet, this is exactly what Lennox’s romance narrative does, indeed, the raison d’etre of the romance narrative: weave a convincing tangle only to unravel it with love, friendship, and tenderness.
Dr. Hargreaves’ backstory is poignant and engaging. At 29, Dr. Polly has run away from home: “Cute little Pollyanna had finally cut and run.” She’s running from overprotective parents, and their and her wealth and status. She’s running from her parents’ anxiety and coddling. Polly was diagnosed with diabetes at six and her life hasn’t been the same since. Polly’s escaping from her parents’ worry, their “fussing,” as she calls it. Polly wants to be independent and daring. She defied her parents by becoming an ER doctor and is a darn good one. She is an embracer of challenges, a dare-devil with margaritas. She’s funny, kind, generous, and brave. She secures the truck. She rappels down and brings Hugo his doctor’s bag so that he can stabilize Horace … and does it all with panache, in a red and white polka dot dress, and red kitten-heeled sandals … until her daring-dos are put to an end by a snake.
Hugo is as wonderful a hero as Polly is a heroine. His backstory is a match for Polly’s, a study in sacrifice and love. Hugo left a beloved, successful career as a thoracic surgeon in Sydney, girlfriend, wide social circle, and moved to Wombat Valley and its basic-care, ten-bed hospital to raise his deceased sister’s daughter, Ruby. Hugo is sad and lonely, but he loves Ruby and wants her world to remain familiar and loving after all her losses. He may occasionally pine for his Sydney life, but his goodness and kindness always lead him back to his love for Ruby and care for Wombat Valley’s denizens.
The opening scene’s Hugo and Polly interactions offer a glimpse into who they are and what tone their exchanges will take. Hugo is a protective care-giver. Polly, in turn, is skittish about being taken care of and this becomes the basis of their relationship’s conflict. When Hugo spots Polly’s dare-devil shenanigans through the truck’s back window, he’s terrified. In irrepressible Polly fashion, she ignores her own weakness and fragility to swing like Jane to the rescue. He protests: ” ‘You’ve got a mouth,’ he said, sounding cautious – and also stunned. ‘I’m bad at respect,’ she admitted.” He cajoles: ” ‘Polly, wait for the cavalry,” Hugo demanded, and once again she had that impression of strength. And that he feared for her. ‘The cavalry’s arriving in half an hour,’ she called back. ‘Does Horace have half an hour?’ Silence.” Polly’s snake-bite means that Ruby and Hugo have to stay put and care for Polly. The three bond beautifully, but Polly always has one foot, at least the uninjured one, out the door. Hugo, on the other hand, is head over heels in love: “Her curls were shining. Her freckles were … freckling. She did not look like a doctor. She looked adorable. He didn’t want to leave tomorrow. How could he fall for a woman called Pollyanna? How could he not?” Polly makes Christmas happen for them, but deflects Hugo’s every loving move, even though she likes and is powerfully attracted to him.
Polly is afraid that Hugo will be as protective and stifling as her parents. This is how From Christmas To Forever becomes Polly’s book. Hugo is mature enough to know what he feels, what he wants, the gem he’s found in Polly. Polly, however, has some powerful and interesting realizations as she becomes more and more attached to Hugo and Ruby. Polly realizes that what Hugo calls “the chains of love” are not constricting, even the ones her parents bound her with. Love and care, love and worry, go hand in hand with family, Polly eventually comes to realize. Miss Bates particularly enjoyed the moment when Hugo tells Polly that he can’t help but care, no one is immune who loves. Caring is not, however, stifling because he hopes Polly would care back. It’s reciprocal, mutual. It’s what family is about. Polly recognizes this in her parents and Hugo, in herself too. What she perceived as “chains” are bonds of love and care.
Marion Lennox’s From Christmas To Forever had the same narrative lag after an action-packed opening scene. Lennox let romance’s intense focus on the main couple and their confusing, beautiful, emerging feelings take centre stage. Because of Polly’s fear of being “fussed” over and Hugo’s modesty about asking for love, Polly and Hugo spend an awful lot of narrative time in their heads, doubting, wondering, resisting in Polly’s case, and ruminating on, their feelings. The humour, banter, and heartfelt decency, nay sheer goodness, of Polly and Hugo are irresistible. Marion Lennox has moved into Miss Bates Happy Rom Territory and she looks forward to reading more. As for From Christmas to Forever, with Miss Austen, Miss Bates says here is evidence of “a mind lively and at ease,” Emma.
Marion Lennox’s From Christmas To Forever is published by Harlequin. It was released on December 1st and can easily be purchased at your preferred vendor. Miss Bates is grateful to Harlequin for an e-ARC, via Netgalley.