Widow Teresa Burkett bought into the veterinary practice in the small town of White Horse, Washington and moved there with her two kids to pursue a more interesting and varied career with animals. Ten-year-old Mark is adjusting to the move well, but teenager Nicole is resentful of having to leave her friends in their old suburban home to live in a "hick" town. Add to that a house that needs extensive remodeling and the resistance of the local dairy farmers to having a petite female vet treat their animals, and Teresa has more trouble than she bargained for.
Joe Hughes is a handsome logger who has lived in White Horse all his life, and built a successful business there. He and Teresa become acquainted when Joe's sister recommends him to remove some trees from Teresa's property. There is an undeniable instant attraction between them, and they begin dating right away. Joe gets along extremely well with Teresa's children and the more time they spend together, the more they both want to make their relationship permanent. The only problem is that Joe has a secret which makes him feel unworthy of a well-educated city girl like Teresa, and he believes it would drive her away if she found out.
Typically I prefer my romances to have enough realism in them to be believable, but still have the illusion of a fantasy. What She Wants for Christmas, in my opinion, had a pretty heavy dose of reality to the point that it felt like I was reading about the rather mundane day to day lives of the residents of a rural Washington town with something of a focus on the hero and heroine. I know that there are readers who enjoy this type of storytelling, so from that perspective, I can see how this book might be very appealing to some. For me though, it was a little on the bland side. Also, for a novel that has "Christmas" in the title, I expected it to be more "Christmas-y", but the holiday season really only came into play during the last third of the book. I ended up feeling like the story could have taken place at any time of the year, and the holiday was little more than an afterthought. In addition, I didn't feel like Joe and Teresa spent enough time together on the canvas. They each had plenty of scenes interacting with the various townspeople, including their families, but there seemed to be very long stretches in between the couple's alone times. They went on several dates during the months after they met, but for the most part they weren't covered in much detail nor was there a lot of deep discussion or strong emotional interactions between them. Not surprisingly, my two favorite scenes in the book were ones that conveyed some of these more intense feelings, one being their first love scene and the other being where Joe finally reveals his secret to Teresa. Still, they weren't quite perfect. The love scene was one of those anger turned to passion moments (not my favorites), but I could at least sense Joe's fear of possibly loosing Teresa and his desperate need to connect on another level. The revelation of his secret was more profound, but then he stubbornly pushed Teresa away in the end.
Perhaps it was the ordinariness of the story itself, but neither Joe nor Teresa ever really stood out to me. Joe was tortured by his secret, which in most cases would have made him very sympathetic to me, but I felt he was being a little too obstinate for the circumstances. While I understood that he had endured a lot of ridicule and intense struggles during his years growing up with this challenge, general understanding of his problem has advanced in recent years to the point where I think he could have done something to attempt to overcome it. Instead he chose to live with the status quo and simply not even try. His family had been supportive of him over the years, but they too seemed a little too accepting of his decision to do nothing further. When Teresa came along and encouraged him to seek help and even offered to help him herself, Joe acted as though she had rocked his safe little boat to the point of creating a tidal wave. Then he repeatedly kept thinking that she was ashamed of him and they could never have a future together because he was unworthy. I just felt like he was protesting too much, and even the ending was rather ambiguous about whether he intended to try to make life changes or simply continue the way he had for years. Perhaps I would have understood him better if his feelings about his problem had been explored more fully and/or he had shown more growth. However, he never really wanted to talk about it, and Teresa ended up either walking on eggshells around the issue or making mistakes. I did admire Teresa in many ways. She was a little on the feisty side, speaking her mind and making a good life for herself and her children after the death of her first husband. Teresa was a veterinarian who was kind and compassionate to both animals and people, and had a good disposition, never having a tendency to feel sorry for herself even though her teenage daughter was being a pain and the local dairy farmers in her new hometown were resistant to letting her treat their animals. Still, after an argument with Joe, Teresa did an almost complete about face in the final chapter, thinking that she had done something so stupid and unforgivable that their relationship was certainly over, and nearly gave up. This seemed pretty out of character for a woman who had taken the bull by the horns many times earlier in the story.
There were a few other things in What She Wants for Christmas that I thought could have been better too. I was initially rather annoyed by Teresa's self-absorbed teenage daughter, Nicole, who was resentful of their move to a "hick" town. She acted pretty bratty in the beginning, but she did lighten up and become a little more likable as the story progressed. My biggest complaint about Nicole's role though, is that every couple of chapters there was a passage written solely from her point of view. In my opinion, these excerpts were little more than filler and didn't really add much value to the main plot. I also found myself being a little bit skeptical of the dairy farmers being against Teresa treating their animals simply because she was a woman. Maybe I just haven't spent enough time in rural communities and I fully realize that even today there are plenty of people with gender prejudice, but we do live in modern times where there are plenty of female vets. Also this part of the plot never seemed to go anywhere as though it was just a little something extra thrown in to add more conflict. I will say that the author either has first-hand experience with dairy farming and logging or did her research very well. There were many details sprinkled throughout the book about both of these industries that seemed pretty authentic. Unfortunately, unless these topics are of interest to the reader (regrettably they weren't to me), they have a tendency to slow things down. Ultimately, I found What She Wants for Christmas to be an OK read that wasn't bad, but in my opinion, could have been greatly improved if all the padding had been replaced with more interaction and relationship development between the hero and heroine. However, What She Wants for Christmas is one of Janice Kay Johnson's earlier works, and since I read another one of her novels this year that I liked very well, I certainly won't be deterred from trying other books by her in the future.
Janice Kay Johnson @ Fantastic Fiction
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