Patricia Addison is a dedicated social worker who is struggling with issues in her personal life. Her long-time marriage to high-school sweetheart, Mark, is crumbling before her eyes, but she feels helpless to stop it. When the foster parents of a little girl under her care must leave town on a family emergency just a couple of days before Christmas and Patricia can't find another place for her, she makes the fateful decision to bend the rules and bring the girl to her home. Little Emily is an orphan who recently lost her mother, and Patricia understands her grief. She only intended to keep Emily overnight, but finds herself unable to resist giving this sweet child the Christmas she deserves surrounded by people who care about her. In return, Emily becomes a ray of light in Patricia's darkened world, restoring hope when she thought all hope was lost.
I loved the first two books in Donna VanLiere's Christmas Hope series, and now I can add The Christmas Hope to my list of all-time favorite holiday-themed stories. In spite of my Christian background, I often find it difficult to read inspirational fiction, because it too frequently seems trite, vapid and/or preachy to me. Not so with Donna VanLiere's books. She somehow manages to impart an inspiring message full of depth and meaning that utterly warms my heart without making me feel like I'm being beaten over the head with it. In my opinion, she doesn't water down the faith aspect of her stories, but neither is it exactly overt which I think makes the books accessible to people of many different faiths and backgrounds. Ms. VanLiere just has a very gentle way about her writing that really speaks to me.
The Christmas Hope is told primarily in first-person from the main protagonist, Patricia's point of view. Patricia is a dedicated social worker who goes above and beyond the call of duty in loving and caring for the kids she helps. She had a rather rough life growing up. When her father left them, it was only through the kindness of strangers that her mother, brother and she survived. Now she seems to be paying it forward to other people through her work, but when the story opens, she has no Christmas spirit left and hasn't celebrated the holiday in four years. Patricia is a little on the OCD side, but I later came to understand that her obsession with tidiness was her way of trying to feel in control after the chaos that has been wreaked on her life by the death of her son. Her marriage is failing, with she and her husband acting like little more than polite strangers which I found quite sad especially after learning about their closeness and the very romantic start to their relationship. Everyone grieves in their own way, but I occasionally had a hard time relating to Patricia's way of dealing (or not, as the case may be). On the surface, she seems to have it all together, but inside she had buried herself so deeply in her grief that she wouldn't let anyone in to share it, not even her husband. Patricia frustrated me a little when she kept saying that she didn't know what to do to stop her marriage from crumbling and her husband from leaving, but her friend and co-worker, Roy, had it right when he said that she did know. It was at those moments that I kept wanting to jump into the story and tell her, "Just do it! Just hug him or do something, anything, to show him you still care." Luckily, a sweet little girl named Emily came along to gently wiggle her way into Patricia's closed-off heart when she least expected it, and a Christmas "miracle" finally brought closure to her deep-seated grief.
Patricia's husband, Mark, seemed like a really great guy who was very kind and loving. Since we don't get any scenes from his point of view, I can't be absolutely certain what he was thinking, but I always got the feeling that he didn't really want his marriage to be over. He was just at the end of his rope and didn't know what to do to reach his wife and couldn't stand living in the same house like strangers anymore. Emily inspires Mark every bit as much as she inspires Patricia, and he seemed a little quicker to respond. He saw what Emily needed and was ready to give her that long before Patricia was willing to admit it. He really got into the holiday spirit, buying the perfect gifts for Emily like a regular Santa's helper and excitedly putting up decorations. I just love how when the door opened a crack he eagerly walked through it, more than happy to soak up the love Emily gave and give it in return, as well as being there for Patricia when she was finally ready.
Emily was an absolutely adorable little girl who was a ray of sunshine in Patricia and Mark's lives. Even though she's been through a lot, she has a generosity of spirit and a peace about her that is like a gentle rain on this couple's parched souls. In fact, she touches the lives of so many people just by being herself. Emily's youthful wisdom reminds me of the Bible verse, "...and a little child shall lead them," because she certainly did lead Patricia and Mark out of a very dark time in their lives and into a brighter future.
Since the main characters weren't familiar to me when I started The Christmas Hope, I wasn't sure if it had a direct connection to the first two books of the series or not. I was very pleasantly surprised when Nathan and Megan Andrews (The Christmas Blessing) showed up, eagerly awaiting the birth of their first child. Nathan also has another unexpected connection to Patricia which he slowly figures out when she brings another of her "kids" to him for treatment of a heart condition. Nathan is a wonderful doctor who is amazing with children. It's obvious that he's finally found his true calling in life. Another former protagonist, Robert Layton (The Christmas Shoes), also shows up in a brief cameo role.
It almost seems like Donna VanLiere has a preoccupation with death especially around Christmastime, but I have to admit that I really like the way she handles this ofttimes difficult topic. As someone who has had trouble with this issue, I can say that she really imparts an inspiring message about death being another step in life. It also wasn't quite as sad for me in The Christmas Hope, because no major characters were dying. In fact, I was surprised to find that this book actually had some lighthearted moments too, with characters gently teasing each other which made me smile. Overall, The Christmas Hope was a heartwarming story that was an inspiration to read, and I'm proud to put it on my keeper shelf to be enjoyed again and again during future holiday seasons. I love Donna VanLiere's way with creating stories in which the characters lives intricately intertwine in wonderful, miraculous and unexpected ways. I can't wait to see what's in store for the next book of the Christmas Hope series.
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