Santa Maybe was provided as a preview by NetGalley.
As romantic times of the year go, surely nothing surpasses Christmas as the go-to season for falling headlong, madly, irrevocably and without regret into the welcoming arms of Cupid?
Sure, you are supposed to do that on Valentine’s Day but it’s just one day, and there’s surely something rather more lovely about giving your heart to someone at the most wonderful time of the year.
It gives you way more time in which to check your heart, to work out who it is you love exactly and to make a firm decision on who shall have your heart going forward.
Unless, of course, you’re toy shop owner, Elodie Martin, protagonist of Mary Jayne Baker’s Santa Maybe, who has taken over the reins of the family business from her ailing grandfather who raised her, and who has found herself unexpectedly wedged between the amorous attentions of new grotto Santa and would-be thespian, Nick Winter, and the owner of the rival to the Martin’s toy shop, rich, debonair Callum Ashley, who has known Elodie since childhood and who believes she is the one to make up for his emotionally bankrupt upbringing (so, no pressure then).
Elodie, scarred by the childhood death of her parents in a car accident, is, however, in full Grinch mode, ironically for someone running the centre of a child’s festive world, and can’t see any signs of nascent love from either guy – she sees Nick as simply a very good friend, mistaking his declaration of love for a particular male celebrity as a sign he’s gay, and Callum, well Callum, is someone with whom she has sparred since they were at school together, and how on earth could he be in love with her?
Elodie shrugged. “He has to be prepared. The lad’s so obsessed with Christmas he probably piddles sherry and farts cinnamon and cloves. He needs to know that despite what he’s seen in his favourite films, being Santa isn’t all candy canes and wide-eyed adorable moppets.”
“He didn’t so badly … for a first-timer. Impressed me.” Pops gave her a searching look. “You don’t like him.”
“I wouldn’t say that. He’s just a bit … odd.”
He laughed. “This is coming from you?”
“I’m not odd. I’m prematurely old, bitter and cynical. That’s completely different.”
In the grand tradition of all fulsomely-realised comedies, he is not only in love with her but determined to make her his own, while Nick, caught in a cycle of supermarket check-out work and unfulfilling minor acting roles, if he can land them at all, realises, after he’s hired to be the Santa for that year’s Christmas at the toy store, that Elodie is not only his employer and bestie but also his soulmate.
Yes folks, Santa Maybe is a great big love triangle with tinsel and flashing tree lights decked all over it, a delightfully substantial novel which manages to be both whimsically alive with the festive zest of yuletide romance, and grounded with the sage understanding that love only works if we can move beyond the scars of our past.
While the novel, rich in captivating characters, a substantial narrative that doesn’t sacrifice meaningfulness for quirky romantic contrivance, and sparkling dialogue, is all about conjuring up a heady feeling of love in a time of Santa and carols and eggnog, a goal at which it succeeds beautifully, it also takes the time to explore why its three main characters, Elodie especially, are so damn bad at love.
Particularly when the world has been seasonally transformed into a setting so impossibly, breathtakingly romantic, that true love should be all but a fait accompli walk in the park?
But that’s where Santa Maybe elevates itself above many a Christmas rom-com.
It dares to weave together the fairytale dreaminess of love at Christmas with the sobering reality that life doesn’t suddenly turn magically good for people just because that’s what’s supposed to happen.
Elodie is trying to keep the shop afloat, made all the more difficult by the retirement of her grandfather as the shop’s Santa due to ill health – that was their one big advantage they had over Callum’s department store – while grappling with the fact that Christmas reminds her of her orphanhood to such an extent that it can’t be eclipsed by the ever-present, unconditional love of her grandfather.
Nick, meanwhile, has some big familial challenges of his own, the kind that he doesn’t resent for a second but which are making any chance of breaking into acting a in a big way next-to-near impossible, and Callum, outwardly the possessor of everything he needs, can’t surmount the fact that he’s alone and desperately lonely without anyone to call his own.
These are some big ticket issues, and to Baker’s credit, she doesn’t pretend they can be wished away by losing yourself in the glittery, escapist joyfulness of the season, leavening the genuinely transportive romantic whimsy of Santa Maybe affectingly bolstered by the truthfulness of the human condition.
It was a new experience for Elodie, drinking champagne with a handsome millionaire while finding herself an object of jealousy for a room full of rich, beautiful women. That was probably something a lot of other people aspired to, but she wasn’t madly keen on it. It made her feel like meat … or like prey, all those eyes narrowed in her direction. She felt like she was in the midst of terribly formal zombie apocalypse.
It’s a seductive mix precisely because by being honest about how pain and loss, and some errors of romantic judgement, can cloud even the most wondrous of possibilities, Baker actually burnishes the lustre of the romantic hopefulness bubbling away this most buoyantly alive of festive tales.
It all feels so much more possible and invitingly sigh-worthy because we know how hard each of the three characters have worked to get there; they finally find love, and perhaps not in the configuration you might expect, but they have to really earn it, battling internal demons, external obstacles and some merry old misunderstandings on an impressive scale.
While, of course, there’s nothing wrong with light, bright and gossamer-wafty tales of Christmas romance – at the end of the year when everything feels a little too exhausting and difficult, that kind of festive escapism is an absolute tonic – it’s wonderful to have some extra, emotionally muscular mix added into the recipe.
Especially when it makes it all so much more meaningful.
Escapism is a delight and the ending of Santa Maybedoes come with all the bows tied just so, and the romantic presents arranged beautifully under the tree, reality wrapped in a shimmery sheen of hopes and hearts fulfilled.
But this robustly lovely novel delivers up so much more, offering explorations of pain, loss and grief, derailed hopes and dreams, and childhoods scarred and adulthoods not realised in the expected way, but also a festively draped and lit-up array of possibilities, romantic (mostly) and otherwise, the giddy joy of love and belonging found and proof positive that Christmas doesn’t just talk the talk of romance but it can walk it too, transforming lives well beyond the season and making things perpetually merry and bright.