Diving into an already well advanced series of books, where the character has already done a fair amount of living and a great deal of narrative has already flowed under the literary bridge, is akin to walking into a conversation that is well underway.
Weirdly uncomfortable and more than a little hard to make sense of; and yet, if you have somehow resisted the charms of Sophie Kinsella up to this point, for no other reason that her books have never really crossed your bookshop-haunting path and are a Christmas tragic eager for a funny, bright & breezy festive read, you will pleasantly surprised to find that Christmas Shopaholic is indeed a novel you can dive into, no further introduction needed.
That is partly because the character that has anchored the Shopaholic series, Becky Brandon née Bloomwood, which began back in The Secret Dreamworld of a Shopaholic aka Confessions of a Shopaholic) in 2000, is so damn vivaciously frenetic and loveable.
She is prone to more than a few mishaps which naturally makes her perfect material for lighthearted romantic comedy novels, but she is a capable, wife, mother and tenacious friend and daughter with a loving husband, gorgeous daughter and a life that makes sense.
She is, in other words, not an accident waiting to happen which frankly would’ve been the easy way out; rather she is simply an enormously resourceful though flawed human being who, like the rest of us, doesn’t always get it right, brought to delightful life by a writer skilled at using character-driven comedy to power her highly-enjoyable novels.
“The November air outside is all crisp and chilly and I can smell the tang of a bonfire. Across the road they’ve got fairy lights lights up already. It’ll be Christmas before we know it. At the thought, I feel a warm, happy sensation spread through me. Christmas is just so … Christmassy. The tree. Presents. The Nativity set we’ve had for ever (except we lost Baby Jesus years ago, so we use a clothes peg instead). Carols playing and Mum pretending she made the Christmas pudding. Dad lighting a fire and Janice and Martin popping in for a sherry in terrible Christmas jumpers … The thing about our family Christmas is, it’s always the same. In a good way.” (P. 15)
Helping greatly too is the fact that Kinsella deftly weaves in a slew of pertinent facts and past significant narrative events which neatly fill in any questions you may have well before they loom on your reading horizon.
She is, thus, like the perfect host, anticipating your needs before you have them, ensuring that all the things about Becky’s life that might not make much sense such as why is she living way outside London and how did this particular circle of characters end up in her life, are there ready and waiting for but without the expositional baggage that would otherwise slow proceedings down.
It speaks to the remarkable quality of writing that underpins the book, testament to the fact that the lighter and airier a book is, the more work that has gone into making feel that effortless.
There are those who dismiss books like Christmas Shopaholic as some sort of lightweight effort because it is so delightfully enjoyable but it’s those same people, weighed down by literary snobbery and a sense of arrogant self-superiority who miss the fact that Kinsella’s books, like the superlatively-good pop songs of ABBA or the romantic comedies of genius storyteller and director Nora Ephron, are the way they are because of the talent and hard work of the creator.
It’s obvious on every page just how skilled Kinsella is at weaving her tales of Becky and her runaway shopping habits – nothing ever feels forced and while there are contrived moments and a resolutely neat-and-happy ending (it is a romantic comedy of sorts, after all) it is all made to happen with such propulsively good fun and richly-expressed humanity, that you happily lap every last wonderfully-expressed narrative bump in the festive road with enthusiastic verve.
It is, in the very best of ways, the kind of novel you just fly through.
The dialogue is whip smart hilarious, each scene feels like a richly-wrought comedy routine and yet one replete with more than enough humanity that it feels accessible and identifiable with, and the characters seamlessly interact with each other in ways that suggest these are people who get and like each other, no matter how tangential or fractured their relationship to each other might be at times.
There is also the matter of the plot which might feel a little been-there-and-done-that on first pass – Becky has to host a big family Christmas with only a month’s warning after her parents decide to move to fashionable Shoreditch in London for a change of older life pace and fears she’ll struggle to make it all happen; cue all kinds of mishaps and laugh-out-loud moments rife with slapstick and silliness – but which crackles with a freshness and vitality that makes every page a delight.
Key to this freshness is the richness of the characters of course – if you’re a regular reader they are well established but again kudos to Kinsella for ensuring those of us late to the gingerbread house making party don’t feel left out – but also the author’s gift for making the events of the book, however unlikely at times (stuck in a pet shop on Christmas Eve? Tick! Big misunderstanding at the final hour? Also tick!), feel like they could happen to you or someone you know.
That in itself is quite the accomplishment.
Writing a story that feels immensely relatable while keeping all the escapist, magical pieces in place is a skill beyond reckoning, akin to having an elf sitting next to on your morning commute.
“OK. Don’t panic. Don’t panic, Becky. It’s only Christmas. That’s what I keep telling myself – but the trouble is, I don’t believe myself any more. There’s no such thing as ‘only Christmas’.
Everything’s sliding out of control. For example: 1. My garlands keep falling off the mantelpiece, even though I’ve tried Sellotape and Blu Tack and string and, in desperation, my gym weights anchoring them down. 2. My giant snow globe of a Christmas village leaked all over the floor yesterday. 3. My Alexander McQueen dress still doesn’t fit, even though I did twenty crunches before I tried to put it on, and I breathed in … But the thing that’s most out of control is: 4. My guests.” (P. 250)
In other words, the real and the romantically diversionary shouldn’t sit happily side-by-side and yet they do, in a story which, naturally enough, has plenty of shopping, lots of “oh no!” moments and yet a character who is capable and able to navigate her way through what in lesser writing hands, might be an unholy half-done mess.
There’s no fear of that with Kinsella who manages to create the kind of escapism demanded of Christmas stories but who also offers some highly-skilled comic storytelling that feeds off its appealingly human characters and a riotously manic sense of pace at times that sits nicely with the more thoughtful, heartfelt scenes.
It is, just like a memorably good Christmas dinner, perfectly served up, ensuring that Christmas with Becky, her husband Luke and daughter Minnie, her parents and their next door neighbours (and longstanding family friends), Janice and Martin, her best friend Suze and half-sister Jess is exactly what the festive doctor ordered, deeply-satisfying proof that normal aka happily dysfunctional close families always veer between chaos and bonhomie and that if you are lucky enough to be in the orbit of someone like Becky, especially at the most wonderful time of the year, that you should just strap in, grab hold of a vegan turkey (and perhaps a real one too) and see where the warm-and-loving, silly-and-manic sleigh ride of touching festive hilarity takes you.