Miss Bates admits she is excited when she sees a new Kate Hewitt romance. Hewitt hits all of Miss B’s reading sweet-spots: a reverence for fidelity and commitment, a diffident sensibility about sexuality, and a portrayal of sympathetic vulnerability in her characters. The first in Hewitt’s latest series (with its cumbersome title, The Holley Sisters of Thornthwaite), A Vicarage Christmas has all that and Christmas! And a curate hero! The BESTEST heroes are Protestant clerical types: Miss B. has a real penchant for them. Also, Miss b. loves a northern England setting, and celibate, but not Puritanical, protagonists. Perfect, thought Miss B., and delved into the romance between third daughter/sister Anna Holley and Simon Truesdell, Anna’s vicar father’s curate. Anna travels home to the village of Thornthwaite (from Manchester, where she works as a legal librarian) to spend the holidays with her family: father Roger and mother Ruth, and two of four sisters, Esther and Rachel. The Holleys are a loving family. The girls obviously grew up in a home of care, comfort, and security. But Anna’s visits home are rare. She usually spends her holidays in Manchester and, while Anna’s mother, Ruth, has the cookies and trimmings and Christmas bows and whistles making up most of the vicarage’s spaces, there is something sad about the family, something off.
Overwhelmed by village visitors and her family, Anna leaves the vicarage on her first night there to sit in a local pub. She meets a newcomer to Thornthwaite, a warm, sympathetic man. Aided by two ciders, Anna is more forthcoming than her usual shy self. She tells him about a family loss when she was a child that has caused her to suffer from social anxiety. Awkward and uncomfortable in social settings, Anna’s condition is accompanied by stammering. The stranger is sympathetic and understanding, with soft, friendly eyes and a lovely smile. He is a right and proper gentleman too, walking Anna home through the dark, snowy evening. Anna and the stranger share a gentle physical attraction, but neither acts on it. The next evening, as Anna’s vicar-father and mother prepare the house for parish celebrations, Anna is introduced to her father’s about-to-be-ordained curate – Simon, the man she spilled her deepest secrets to in the local pub!
While MissB enjoyed Hewitt’s romance, there should’ve been more of it. It’s a slight story about two likable, deserving protagonists. The pub scene is the best thing in it: the characters come alive and their conversation feels real and deep. Beyond that, the romance-which-felt-more-like-a-novella wanes in quality. The English caroling, candle-light, and Christmas tree decorating are lovely throughout. But Anna and Simon carry such burdens of brokenness from their past that their pain is louder than their love and attraction. It’s not easy to believe in their HEA, partly because Anna has doubts as to whether she and Simon can work at long distance and partly because the narrative’s development is truncated. Moreover, Miss Bates acknowledges the argument that “telling” and “not showing” is not always a narrative kiss of death; “telling” is sometimes necessary and sometimes stylistically efficacious. But when “telling” is used, as in Hewitt’s case here, as shorthand to what could’ve been scene-setting and dialogue, what the genre can do so well, and at both of which Hewitt can be master, MissB. couldn’t help but yearn for more.
MissB. liked Anna and Simon, despite their angst-o-rama, liked the setting, and the theme of love’s healing power, she wished, however, that the story had received the development it needed. Nevertheless, Hewitt’s themes remain sympathetic to Miss Bates and she’ll always return to her books and delight in new offerings. As for A Vicarage Christmas, she and Miss Austen say that it was “almost pretty,” Northanger Abbey.
Kate Hewitt’s A Vicarage Christmas is published by Tule Publishing. It was released on October 12th and may be procured from your preferred vendors. Tule Publishing provided Miss Bates with an e-ARC, via Netgalley.