Christmas book review: The Holiday Switch by Tif Marcelo

(courtesy Penguin Books Australia)

Christmas is, no matter how you slice it, a pretty romantic time of the year.

Unless your soul is made of concrete and your heart of thickest steel, you can’t help but feel happily uplifted and lightened by all the twinkling lights, the joy and the goodwill and the general sense of the year winding down to the most wonderful time of the year.

It’s a buoyant diversion from the grim, heavy hand of reality and in The Holiday Switch by Tif Marcelo, it gets an extra sheen when love, true love makes an appearance albeit in complete defiance of everything Filipino American Isla Santos wants or expects from the season.

A gifted student with a tenaciously executed and rigorously planned path to college where she’ll major in bio before going premed, Isla is the sort of person who brooks no deviation in her expected trajectory.

All she wants to do is hang out with her besties Carm and KC, work through the festive checklist of Mission: Holly – Holly is the New York town in which she lives and where The Holiday Switch is set and it’s all Christmas, all the time in the way that only towns in Christmas novels can be – and work as much as she can at the local inn which trades off the appeal of 25-year-old rom-com Holiday by the Lake which was filmed in the town.

So it’s just to me he’s being a jerk.

I end my shift in the library area. As I clock out, Ms. Velasco hands me the book with the purple cover with a pensive smile.

It’s a small extra reward for the night with Teddy, but I’ll take it.

It’s all set in stone as far as Isla is concerned and with the money she earns at the inn, she’ll be able to go to her dream college, Syracuse University (well, almost; she still needs a financial aid package), and claim the life that she believes is pretty much inevitably hers.

But then Teddy Rivera, her boss’s nephew, turns up, and the secret book blogger – she’s not ashamed of what she does but there are certain issues at play which means she has to keep her festive-theme blog under wraps – discovers that not only is her handsome but he’s insufferably so sure of himself that the shared shifts they take on so she can train him soon become an ordeal that Isla neither counted on or wants.

It’s the good old opposites attract scenario or it seems but in this warm, funny and smartly written novel, nothing is quite what it seems, something that becomes abundantly clear when the two accidentally switch phones (hence the title) and find out things about each other that explain a good deal more than either wants to let on.

They both have secrets, secrets which, by the way, aren’t as deadly as they think but which in their worlds defined by expectation and the sort of certainty only possible in a young life yet to have sure plans blow to smithereens by whim and accident, seemed so huge as to be almost insurmountable.

Will this draw them closer and help them see they have likely allies in each other?

( courtesy official author site)

You bet it will, but the hugely enjoyable part of The Holiday Switch is that Marcelo does a pleasing job of subverting anything you might anticipate.

It turns out, surprise, surprise that Isla and Teddy have more in common than they thought and that maybe, just maybe, they’re not so much opposites attracting as they are two similar(ish) souls finding a safe harbour in the other, a refuge from some reasonably heavy duty issues that aren’t solved by book’s end but which promise not to be as crushingly awful as either person first feared.

Marcelo handles their coming together with an enviable amount of restraint which is not easy when the rom-com imperative that drives novels like The Holiday Switch is chafing at the bit, like Rudolph eagerly leading Santa’s sleigh, to get to its all but predestined destination.

But resisting the urge to put the rose-tinted pedal to the romantic metal, Marcelo gives the story time to build and build at its own pace, and while yes, Isla does have moments where she finds herself caught up in the allure of what Teddy represents, she isn’t turned simply into a vehicle of lustful longing.

Which frankly is refreshing; Isla is a talented and more than competent young woman from a family that loves her and a community that has shaped her well, and while she has issues like anyone who’s 18 does, she’s got the ability to handle as well, if not better, than any of her peers.

Which means he won’t be at Climb Holly when I’m there for the party.

‘Lila?’ Mom is at the door, jacket on, with her purse and lunch bag at the ready. ‘Everything good?’

‘Yep. Taken care of.’

But a small part of me is disappointed that Teddy won’t be there.

The fact that Marcelo respects and balance the integrity and appeal of Isla as a character with the push-pull of her and Teddy getting to the eventual point of admitted romantic attraction, is one of the great strengths of The Holiday Switch.

Bedecked and infused and permeated by all things gloriously festive in a town which knows no other way of living or expressing itself, The Holiday Switch is that rare Christmas rom-com which takes things nice and slowly, and which, while it admits to percolating romantic longing, doesn’t sacrifice everything to get the story to its happy-ever-after.

Isla and Teddy are allowed to breathe, grow and develop as characters and while, yes, there is a sparkly and flirty vibrancy to their exchanges and a clear sense they will end up together, two rom-com tropes that Marcelo includes in the novel with a refreshing sense of buoyant originality, it’s that willingness to let the narrative do its thing in its own time, with some added emotional weight and substance that makes The Holiday Switch such a festively swoon-worthy delight.

As holiday rom-coms go, The Holiday Switch is right up there with the best, peopled by two compelling leads, especially the multi-layered grounded joy that is Isla, set with a storyline that feels warm and lived-in and not solely hostage to a romantic finish line, and possessed of a Christmassy verve that fits the setting but which provides just the right background for two people to meet, spark and inevitably come together in a way that feels real and satisfying and wholly fitting for this romantic time of the year.

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