Christmas is supposed to be rose, cosy and oh-so-festively nice.
Well, that’s the luminously lovely PR anyway; the truth is, it doesn’t always live to the pitch, no matter how hard we try and we arrive at the festive season feeling ill-prepared, all-at-sea and unsure if we have what it takes to survive all the family and expectations and general tinsel-draped chaos.
One person who knows precisely what this feels like is Bettie Hughes, grumpy protagonist of Just Like Magic by Sarah Hogle (Twice Shy) onetime multi-millionaire social media influencer who spent her life in extravagance and indulgence until she spent her way into the poorhouse and ended up living not in a beachside mansion in Hawaii, drinking Evian by the roll top bathtub but squatting in a dead woman’s house in Teller City, Colorado, perilously close to the Addams Family-inspired house atop the hill that overlooks the town, where her filmstar grandma and long-suffering, sweet grandpa live.
She’s out of money and as far from a full bank balance and lavish lifestyle as you can get, but appearances matter, and everywhere she goes she’s recognised, with people expecting her to be the exact same person her carefully-curated online presence has purported her to be.
Alas, for Bettie, who looks just like her grandma who is still trading off her Hollywood fame years after her prime, it all gets too much one night and she gets drunk and accidentally plays a record of “All I Want For Christmas is You” by Mariah Carey backwards, summoning up a holiday spirit named Hall who, initial screams of shock and disbelief aside, turns out to be just what she needs.
Offended on my grandmother’s behalf, he divests me of my suitcases and marches resolutely forward, I hope nobody is watching through the windows to see that a couple of the roller suitcases are rolling along of their own volition. ‘Don’t worry, Bettie, this’ll be great. You’re going to spend a lovely week with your family. You’re going to learn the true meaning of Christmas, which is different for every person, by the way. And you’re going to replenish your holiday spirit. That’s the reason I’m here.’
‘The reason you’re here is to make me look spectacular. But don’t do anything magical in front of other people without my go-ahead. They’ll either have a heart attack and die or they’ll dissect your brain and sell it to scientists.’
It’s at this glorious point where normal life meets magical festivity that Just Like Magic comes truly alive, serving up a delightfully offbeat rom-com which draws upon all kinds of fantastically trippy imaginative elements while retaining a reassuringly solid beating heart at its core.
While Hall’s sudden materialisation throws Bettie for a loop, she quickly rallies and realises that this innocent, garrulously chatty and happy guy, who can magically summon anything he wants from fully festively redecorates homes to red limousines and outfits to match, is her ticket to making her upcoming Christmas gathering with the family the triumph she hoped it might be.
When she had no money that was such a pipe dream but now with Hall, who comes another plane of existence where holiday spirits of all kinds roam until they are summoned, often accidentally as it turns out, Bettie knows she can dress to the nines, give gifts that will massively impress – her family is less warm-and-fuzzily supportive than competitively toxic, the result of, well Bettie’s not sure but it’s been that way for a while – and then depart, her reputation as a super successful, gift giving wunderkind happily intact.
With Hall introduced as her fiancé, Bettie sets out to wow her family, when she’s not arguing with them, or being considerably less than merry and bright, and taking revenge on her many detractors including fans of her ex Lucas Dormer who’s douchebag who somehow commands the loyalty of unceasingly angry fans who are happy to do his troll-heavy bidding, sure that with magic and Hall’s willingness to do anything to up her Christmas spirit, that this is one festive season that will just what the influencer doctor ordered.
But, of course, this is a rom-com at Christmas, and so what Bettie, coldhearted and angry at the world and her family thinks she wants is not what she gets, with Hogle doing a superbly funny and moving job of transforming this digital Scrooge into someone who might just want to go carolling or snowball fighting or ice skating with her family who, miraculously, begin to become the warmhearted people she remembers from old home movies.
The joy, and it is joy in copious, mirth-inducing and smile-sustaining quantities, of Just Like Magic is that everyone does become nicer and nicer, which in turn makes the family all around more lovelier, all of which happens against a backdrop of Bettie, who swore she wouldn’t fall in love with anyone, realising she likes Hall, who can turn anything he touches into a Christmas delight at the touch of his hand, who alas is due to disappear back to his magical realm as soon as Bettie reaches a required level of festive bonhomie.
She fights how she feels, both because this is not who she is and then later, because if she becomes truly happy then Halls goes “Poof!” in a cloud of snow and glitter, but nothing can stop all that rom-com restorative wonder which fills Just Like Magic with all the Christmas warmth and happiness you could possibly ask for.
I hear an ever-so-faint clip-clop of horse hooves on cobblestones, shimmering sleigh bells, the crackling of a fire. At first I think that Hall’s infused those details into the environment, painting a scene, but whenever he flings me out, away from his body so that I can then twirl back into his arms, I notice how the sensations recede, go quiet. He’s not making those sounds or scents. He is them. Being close to him is like huddling up before a hearth on the longest night of the year, a thick quilt wrapped around me, utterly safe and contented. It’s like closing my eyes, lambent light warming me all over, and drifting away in a golden tint of nostalgia, toy drummers, and childhood things.
For such an outrageously over-the-top premise, Just Like Magic has a huge amount of moving humanity at its heart.
Filled with a lushness of Christmasness that feels like Santa hugging you all the time – if you’re a Christmas tragic like this reviewer, you’ll long to have someone like Hall who’s so into the season and able to conjure up anything; it’s a Christmas decorating fantasy sprung to bauble-decked life – and characters who are beautifully fully-formed and dialogue that pops with humour and meaning, Just Like Magic is a richly-written rom-com wonder that goes precisely where you know it will but not without stopping to have a whole lot of fun and fix some truly broken hearts along the way.
If you think there’s nothing new under the storytelling Christmas tree, think again (and while you’re at it think “Make my wish come true” because who knows if an amenable Christmas spirit is listening?) because Just Like Magic is the most breathtakingly fun and wondrous, heart-filled merry and bright, slice of festive silliness that will utterly tickle every last one of your funny bones while giving you the sort of bighearted reassurance that love and change for the good are all possible, not just at Christmas but all through the year which will seem all the more magical for reading this most perfectly upbeat and hilariously emotionally thoughtful and magically alive of second-chance rom-com novels.