Christmas preview book review: The Gingerbread House at Mistletoe Gardens by Jaimie Admans

(courtesy Rakuten Kobo)

By their very nature, books set around Christmas are supposed to be extra special magical and joyful, a sizeable step away from the grim sheen of reality, festooned with sparkling lights, awash in mulled wine and festive-coloured candy with the air filled with the expressively happy tones of Christmas music pumped up to winter wonderland levels.

That’s what we expect when we pick up a Christmas genre novel and while we often get it, with everything possible Christmassy reference shoehorned like an elf gleefully overstuffing Santa’s sack, it doesn’t always come with the attendant humanity to make it feel truly meaningful.

The vivaciously delightful thing about The Gingerbread House at Mistletoe Gardens by Jaimie Admans is that it not only serves up all the merriness and festiveness you could want but does it in a way that feels so deliciously grounded that all the decking the halls and joy to the world-ing feels especially impactful and all the more alive with possibility, humanity and warmth.

That matters because while festive bliss is all good and wonderful, it pales and breaks down to ephemeral nothing when it lacks emotional robustness and a sense that here are real people living real lives.

You may think that’s surplus to requirements in a story which is dedicated to make you feel GOOD but for all the floaty, tinsely-y bliss to mean anything at all, you have to feel like it’s having an impact on real people.

Mistletoe Gardens started with gingerbread … Maybe it should end with gingerbread too. A karmic full circle thing. A send-off to mark its departure in the same way it began.

Well, for this reviewer, anyway.

That’s why even though the lightweight Hallmark movies of the season can be fun and animated specials that are all things get fixed super easily because Santa’s there do make the heart swell with a deliciously buoyant seasonal joy, they often vanish just as quickly, leaving you vaguely blissful but unsure why.

A book like The Gingerbread House at Mistletoe Gardens stays with you long after the last page is turned because Admans has gone to considerable length to expertly world-build – the setting for the novel is a quaint south Wales village called Folkhornton filled with eccentrically well menaing souls and a bakery called dancing Cinnamon (how could you not want to eat there?) – create and develop fully-rounded characters, and pepper the Christmas rom-com tale with witty, fun dialogue and some searingly impactful home truths.

It means that while there are happy festive endings in abundance and people finding love and connection and belonging, and all the good things you want from a story like this, there’s also a leavening degree of humanity not at its best which makes the better angels of our nature, when they appear clutching eggnog and awash in Christmas spirit, all the more meaningful.

Admans cleverly makes some of the characters not all that lovely and we’re not necessarily talking the bad guy of the piece here (although even he is balanced by being misunderstood and misguided), and it’s these unlikable attributes that actually make what happens to Essie Browne and cranky local builder Joss Hallisey all the more lovely when it comes crashing into the darker side of the human equation.

(courtesy Boldwood Books)

And let’s be honest – we’re not talking people engaged in genocide and massacres here, obviously.

There’s a mother who’s too wrapped up in her own stridently expressed world to appreciate that her daughter isn’t a big, fat failure and might be capable of doing some marvellously creative things and townspeople who are as apt to gossip as they are to pitch in when backs are firmly against the wall, right when the Christmas spirit needs all the help it can get.

While the bulk of the story falls to Essie and Joss – she comes up with the idea of building a life-sized gingerbread house to reinvigorate the fading park environs of Mistletoe Gardens (founded by a 9th century ancestor of Essie’s), the town’s only green space which is slated by the local council for development into apartments and enlists antisocial, anti-Christmas Joss to help her – it’s the fallibility and all-too-real humanity of the supporting characters which adds real bulk and weight to the vibrantly frothy festive fun.

Not everyone is initially supportive of the idea, and not everyone pitches in to help, and while that all happens at various points, and makes your heart glad, Admans has ensured that while Santa’s magic dust does rectify some fairly dire issues, it’s not all baubles and mince pies under twinkling fairy lights, all of which of course means that when the good things do happen, and they are warmly lovely and perfect, they will all the more weighty and important.

‘I’m feeling all festive. Can we go Christmas carolling tonight? Ooh, can we watch Christmas movies and go festive jumper shopping? Make snow angels? Roast chestnuts on an open fire?’

I [Essie} smack his [Joss’s] arm again. ‘I’m glad you amuse yourself because you don’t amuse anyone else.’

It all means that The Gingerbread House at Mistletoe Gardens is that rare and magical thing in Christmas novels – it has festive magic and a groundedness that amps up even more how absolutely wonderful this gem of a story makes you feel.

It’s damn near impossible not to lose yourself, and happily so, in Joss and Essie’s blissfully icing sugar-dusted romance which starts out as a clear case of opposites butting heads, though with baked goods and Essie’s vivacity involved that can’t last long surely, and turns into two lost souls, each with some existentially raw open wounds finding a home and a place of belonging with each other.

Because Admans takes the time to let the story build and to let Joss and Essie, and the cast of beautifully wrought supporting characters be lovely and not and hopeful and not, you never once feel like The Gingerbread House at Mistletoe Gardens is on a murderously fast run to a mulled wine-soaked, nutcracker-adorned sprint to a happy-ever-after Christmas finish line.

You get there, of course, because how could you not, but it all feels so real and grounded and relatably human that when all the festively vibrant descriptive passages fill the pages, and the romance is ramped up, and the lights twinkle and Christmas magic falls upon everyone, you feel as if this is one warmhearted, gorgeously alive story that has well and truly earned its payoff, one that leaves you feeling like you’re wrapped up in a colourfully decorated festive hug and supremely glad that in a world that can be cold and angry and all spiky Initial Joss, that we have writers like Admans to remind how gloriously good life can be when we let down our guard, believe in ourselves and life again and let Christmas, and beyond, do it’s quite vivaciously wonderful thing.

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