Bailey Sullivan hates Christmas, yet she has been called home to Coronado, California to rescue the family business specializing in that very holiday. The Perfect Christmas is a store that was started by Bailey's maternal grandparents years ago. Everyone in town seems to think it is a historical landmark, but Bailey sees it as an inconvenience and a burden. Since her mother and stepfather are experiencing a rocky place in their marriage and refuse to be in the same room with each other, much less running a business together, only Bailey is left to save the day. She has a simple plan though, to get herself through the holiday. She will arrive on December 1st, do what has to be done, and leave on December 25th, no muss, no fuss, and no strings to tie her down. The only problem is Bailey hadn't counted on seeing her former high school sweetheart whom she left a decade earlier without so much as a good-bye, and he could potentially put a crimp in her well-laid plans.
Finn Jacobson was an uncontrollable teenage bad boy, so his parents sent him to live with his grandmother every year during Christmas and summer breaks. She quietly commanded his respect and was the only person who seemed to be able to keep him out of trouble, that is, until he met Bailey. She was the pretty, smart, popular girl who lived next door to Finn's grandmother. She was everything he wasn't, and accepted him as he was. They became fast friends, and over the years, a romance developed which eventually led them to become lovers as well. Then, one day, Bailey picked up and left town without a word, and Finn hasn't seen her since. Partly due to Bailey's influence, Finn went to college and became a Secret Service agent. He is now something of a legendary hero after helping to save a foreign dignitary from an assassination attempt nearly a year earlier. The incident has left him scarred in both body and mind though, and he has come to stay with his grandmother to try to heal. The last thing Finn counted on was seeing his old flame and opening more wounds of the past.
When Finn and Bailey first encounter each other, there is a wall of icy tension between them, but when Finn's worried grandmother asks Bailey to track down a drunken Finn at a local bar and see him home safely, things start to heat up pretty quickly. Having too much to drink loosens Finn's tongue and makes him say things to Bailey that he wouldn't have sober. As old feelings and passions resurface, they nearly make love in his gram's classic T-Bird, but Bailey stops short, fearing that getting involved with Finn again will only complicate her simple plan. After a few clear-headed moments to reconsider, she decides that perhaps a casual fling should be her reward to herself for all the hassles she'll be enduring this holiday season. Bailey tells Finn that she has changed her mind, only to discover that he has fallen asleep on her, so she leaves a cryptic note saying, “You owe me” instead. A few days later, Bailey calls in the favor when she desperately needs someone to play Santa at The Perfect Christmas. Their even closer proximity to each other, renews the old magic between them, but there is also pain to face in both their lives. While Finn has grown and changed over the years, he is still trying to come to terms with the assassination incident, and Bailey, for her part, is still basically the same teenage “run-away”, afraid of her feelings and cynical about love. Finn will have a major challenge convincing her that anything can last beyond December 25th.
I somehow got the mistaken impression that Must Love Mistletoe would be a lighthearted, witty romantic comedy, but it seemed that the author couldn't decide whether the story was supposed to be a comedy or a drama. While there were some humorous scenes that made me smile, there were others that I think were meant to be humorous, but to me, came off seeming rather silly and childish. The book also dealt with several heavier topics such as marital strife and death, but not in the deeply emotional yet heartwarming manner that I prefer. I also felt that there were weakness in the plot. I just never fully bought into the idea of Finn and Bailey being separated for ten years without contact in our electronic age. I realize that Bailey was purposely trying to run away and avoid Finn, but since his grandmother lived next door to her mother, it seems like it would have been an easy thing for him to simply inquire after her whereabouts. Since it was obvious that he loved her very deeply, it just never entirely made sense to me that Finn wouldn't at least try to find Bailey to get some answers, but I suppose that he may have simply been too broken-hearted to try. I also like a strong happily-ever-after ending that leaves me feeling like the protagonists will be together for a long time after the last page is turned, but unfortunately, I did not feel like I got this in Must Love Mistletoe. While Finn's Christmas gift to Bailey was beautiful and romantic, the ending was surrounded by sad events and a great deal of ambiguity that left me with no clear picture of where these two might end up down the road.
While I have had personal life experiences that bear some similarity to those of Bailey, I had a difficult time relating to her. She was a popular girl in high school, while I never was. She hates Christmas, while I tend to enjoy it. She doesn't believe in true love any more than she believes in Santa Claus, while I have always been a hopeless romantic. Still, if all these things had been played in the lighthearted manner in which I had expected, I think Bailey would have been a more relateable character, but as she was written, I felt that she took herself and life way too seriously. I think her character would also have been better if she had shown a bit more vulnerability instead of being an island unto herself. While Bailey had been very deeply affected by her parent's divorce and her father's abandonment, I just couldn't fully understand her teenage cynicism about relationships, since her mother had been remarried presumably happily for at least a decade at that point, to a man who Bailey herself admitted was a good man. However, I realize that children and teenagers can be very impressionable, so I could have perhaps bought into the idea that Bailey would run away from her relationship with Finn the first time, but when she was prepared to do it again as a supposedly intelligent adult, I started to loose respect for her and just wanted to shake some sense into her. I also thought it was rather cruel for Bailey to have thrown away her wonderful friendship with Trin when she left the first time. For her to continue to allow her parents divorce and her father's ill-conceived advice affect her relationships more than twenty years later, to me showed a distinct lack of growth and maturity. In my opinion, it even showed weakness, because Bailey seemed unwilling to take a chance on anyone or anything simply for fear of it turning out badly. I'm sorry to say that I was just never able to fully grasp why Finn fell in love with her.
I could also not bring myself to care much about the secondary romance between Bailey's mother, Tracy, and stepfather, Dan. After twenty years of marriage, I felt that they should have been able to weather empty-nest syndrome without resorting to what was in my opinion petty, childish bickering that could have been easily cleared up with a little more communication. It also didn't seem quite fair that a pair of secondary characters got the first major love scene in the book. In addition, Tracy's actions in taking a crowbar to her ex-husband's car, which I believe was meant to be empowering, I unfortunately found rather disturbing instead. As with Bailey, I felt that she should have grown more in the last twenty years than to be so affected by his presence as to take such drastic measures. Nearly every time there was a long scene or an entire chapter devoted to Tracy and/or Dan, I started zoning out and was eager to get back to Finn and Bailey's story. I was somewhat disappointed though with the love scenes between Finn and Bailey, because while they were full of hot, steamy sensuality, they generally seemed like little more than lust gone wild. I really like to feel that the characters are in love, and while I could sense this to some extent on Finn's part, Bailey was always so closed off, that it never truly seemed like her heart was in their lovemaking.
In spite of my negative comments up to this point, I actually did find several things to like about Must Love Mistletoe. First and foremost, I really liked the hero, Finn. Although the author didn't delve quite deep enough into his character to suit my taste, he was still very intriguing. The persona of a former bad boy who cared for Bailey enough to stay out of trouble and clean up his act in order to impress her was very appealing. In spite of his outer tough guy, there were several times that the author allowed a sensitive and vulnerable side to show through, creating an all-too-human and well-rounded character that was enjoyable to read. Also, any guy who loves and respects his grandmother as much as Finn did is a winner in my book. Finn's grandmother was a joy to read as well. Even though she didn't directly play a large part in the story, it was fun to imagine the kind of sweet little old lady she must have been to command Finn's respect. She seemed to be the only person besides Bailey who was able to keep him on the straight and narrow. I also liked Bailey's straight-talking, sassy best friend, Trin, who infused Bailey's life with a much needed dose of reality. I also thought she was a very forgiving person to so easily allow Bailey back into her life after Bailey had left without so much as a good-bye and hadn't even communicated with her in over a decade. The Perfect Christmas was a neat little store with a lovely ambiance, which if it really existed, would have had me agreeing with everyone else in town about it being a “landmark” and an “institution”. The store was really a character in it's own right and I found myself rather disappointed at the author's choice of an ending for it. In addition, I had never read a contemporary story set in suburban Southern California, so I was able to appreciate a uniqueness in the setting. Lastly, I really enjoyed Bailey Sullivan's Vintage Facts & Fun Calender, little trivial tidbits about Christmas that were at the beginning of each chapter. I found these to be pretty entertaining and educational.
Must Love Mistletoe started out fairly strong, hooking me in with the appealing idea of the story of two former sweethearts reunited after many years apart, but unfortunately it veered off in some strange and unexpected directions that I did not find entirely appealing. While it had a number of weaknesses and was not the best book I have ever read, neither did I find it to be a complete chore to finish as has been the case with some other stories. While I have not seen an official series designation, Must Love Mistletoe has another holiday-themed sequel titled, Not Another New Year's, in which secondary character and Finn's fellow ex-Secret Service agent, Tanner Hart becomes the hero. This was the first book I had read by Ms. Ridgway, and while she didn't completely wow me this time, she has a reasonably good writing style that leaves me open to the possibility of reading other books by her in the future.
The Hope Chest Reviews on Facebook