After his marriage to the love of his life went south because of his alcoholism, Gabe Rodriguez worked hard to get his life back on track. Now clean and sober, he works as a maintenance man at Grandon Elementary School where he's befriended seven-year-old Maddie, a precocious girl with cerebral palsy, who's spent most of her young life in foster care. Maddie thinks that Gabe needs to have love for the holidays and promises to find him the perfect woman. Gabe simply laughs it off as the fancies of a child until Maddie tells him that she's discovered just the right person in one of her caregivers at Glory's Place, the after-school program she attends. When Maddie insists that Gabe come to the Glory's Place holiday fund-raiser to meet his perfect match, he's shocked to discover that the woman is none other than his ex-wife, Amy. The two engage in polite interactions for Maddie's sake, but as they keep finding themselves thrown together, they begin to wonder if perhaps there's still something there that can be mended. As they help with plans for a wedding between Gabe's cousin, Travis and his fiancée, Lauren, will Gabe and Amy rediscover the lost love that they once shared?
I've been a fan of Donna VanLiere ever since I read The Christmas Shoes, the first book of her Christmas Hope series several years ago. Every time she releases a new book in the series, I'm always there, ready and waiting to read it ASAP. The Christmas Star was no different. I was very eager to dive into it, but I ended up being slightly disappointed by it. I liked the characters and how the townspeople of Grandon are a close-knit bunch who pull together to make things happen. The story was fairly cute and heartwarming, but this time it felt overly simplistic. It simply didn't reach the emotional highs and lows that this author's work typically does for me. I also felt somewhat distanced from her characters this time, because there's a lot of dialogue, but not a great deal of introspective prose to give me a look inside their heads to genuinely understand them. So while it was a decent read, it just didn't reach me on the deep level that most of the other books of the series have.
We get two different storylines in this book that intersect with one another. The main one involves Gabe and Amy, who were once married, but have been divorced for around four years, if memory serves. Gabe had a problem with alcohol and admits that he was a bad husband. Since the divorce, though, he's gotten his life back on track, and although he never thought he would see Amy again, he hasn't forgotten her and still cares about her. Amy is an insurance adjuster who has always longed for children of her own, but Gabe didn't want any when they were married. She starts volunteering at Glory's Place as a way to connect with children in the community, many of whom are in foster care, which then leads her to deciding to become a foster parent herself. Then there's little Maddie, a foster child with cerebral palsy. The school she attends is the same one where Gabe works, and she goes to the after school program at Glory's Place where she also gets to know Amy. Maddie decides they'd be a perfect match and tries to set them up for a date, leaving both of them surprised when they realize who the other person is.
I liked all three of these characters. Gabe is admirable for turning his life around, getting into an AA program, and finding gainful employment. Through working at the school, he's also come to realize that he does like kids and wouldn't mind having one like Maddie. In fact, he likes them so much, he's working on getting a college degree so that he can become a teacher. Amy is just a nice person all-around. She's a great mentor and role-model for the kids at Glory's Place, and practically dotes on Maddie. Maddie is quite simply an outgoing bundle of positive energy who doesn't let her disability get her down. She likes her foster mom, but she'd like it even better if she could have a real mom and dad someday. While I may have found all the characters likable, I don't know that I really got to know any of them on a deep level. I've seen some readers classifying this book as romance, and out of all the books of the series, this one probably comes the closest, but only in the most basic sense. There's very little thought process that goes into Gabe and Amy reuniting as a couple or them deciding to adopt Maddie. (I don't really feel like I'm giving much of a spoiler by saying this, because I could see all of it coming from a mile away.) While it was all very cute and sweet, it left me feeling unsatisfied, because I couldn't really tell you what brought Gabe and Amy back together other than them supposedly never entirely getting over one another. But I simply didn't feel their love in the way I wanted to.
The second storyline continues with Lauren and Travis's story from the previous book, The Christmas Town. They get engaged and start planning a hasty wedding to take place near Christmas in the gazebo in the town square, which holds special meaning for Lauren. Gabe happens to be Travis's cousin and the best man. Then when Lauren decides she wants the kids from Glory's Place to be a part of it as well, Amy gets involved, too. Add in her friends, Gloria, Miriam, Stacy, and Stacy's son, Ben, who have become Lauren's family, and things really get interesting. Perfectionist Miriam keeps trying to persuade Lauren into a more elaborate affair, while Gloria, as usual, is much more laid-back, keeping Miriam from going overboard. The way everyone pulls together to make the wedding memorable was touching.
While The Christmas Star had some of Donna VanLiere's trademark charm, I felt it fell short of her usual high standard. This is an author who has made me cry both tears of a joy and tears of sadness while reading her books, but this story was merely cute for me rather than being particularly moving. As I already mentioned, I didn't feel like I fully understood the characters' motivations. Things just happen with little thought going into them. If the characterizations had been deepened the book would have gotten at least four stars from me, but as is, it didn't pass muster. I also had issues with the writing itself, which until this book hasn't really been a problem for me. The last few books in the series, Ms. VanLiere has been writing in the very unusual third person, present tense style, which can be a little jarring and hard to get into, but I was drawn in by the previous stories enough to get used to it. Here, though, it kind of stuck out like a sore thumb, because the narrative didn't flow as well. There were lots of typographical and grammatical errors, and a lot of it was so unpolished, it made me roll my eyes in exasperation. Some of this is to be expected since I was reading an ARC, but as a longtime reviewer, I've read a number of ARCs in the past and don't recall one that was quite so rough around the edges. One would hope that it was cleaned up before the book went to publication, but I did a quick skim of the first couple of chapters on Amazon and didn't see much difference, so I'm not sure. All I know is that the writing itself was a major detractor for me this time around, which is something I haven't experienced with this author before. Overall, The Christmas Star was a decent story, albeit a very simplistic one. If you're new to this author, I don't think this is the best example of her work, but if you're a long-time fan like me, you'll undoubtedly find it worthwhile.
Note: I received an ARC of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.
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