#ChristmasInJuly book review: Window Shopping by Tessa Bailey

Christmas is, however you choose to view it, a time of rebirth and redemption.

The overwhelming message of Christian theology is that on this day, with the birth of Jesus as the saviour of the world, humanity had a chance to start again, freed off the sins of fallen Eden and the mortally imperiling mistakes of the past, and be borne anew.

Tessa Bailey is clearly a strong believer in that sentiment, investing her novel Window Shopping with the endlessly appealing idea that we are not doomed forever by the brokenness of our past.

It is the perfect sentiment for the most wonderful time of the year, but is not immediately obvious to Stella Schmidt, barely four weeks out of jail, newly-arrived in New York City where she’s staying in her uncle’s apartment, and unsure of where on earth she goes next.

She is as lost as you can be, existentially holding a jagged pile of terrible life choices and inescapably awful consequences in her hands, all of them so injurious and irredeemable, so she feels that she wonders how you can possibly put all those pieces together again, or if that fails, start all over again?

It doesn’t seem possible until she finds herself standing in front of a truly cringeworthy window display at the front up upmarket department store Vivant, one featuring penguins on an assembly line making toys, meant to look ho-ho-ho festive but really kind of creepy, raising the idea that Christmas is simply one long production line of materialism, which is not, Stella says to the man who stops next to her and asks her opinion of the display, the message a store, or anyone really, wants to send at Christmas.

“I last another five minutes before lunging to my feet with a curse of Bow Tie’s existence, and I start hunting through drawers for the laptop charger. What’s the worst that can happen? I submit the application and they never respond?

No, that’s what will happen. I’m an ex-convict.

But for some crazy reason, I send it anyway.

I’ll never hear back.” (P. 12)

As lucky would have it, the hunky, handsome man in a suit next to Tessa is the owner of the store, one Aidan Cook, raised in the South by a quirkily eccentric aunt, and the son of the family behind Vivant which came close to shutting its door for good save for self-made man Aidan stepping in with a last-minute bailout.

The exchange between Stella, who is blatantly honest because she has no idea who it is standing beside her, and warm, friendly, grounded Aidan, who is nothing like his venomous family, is all sparklingly witty dialogue and near-instant rich characterisation, imbuing Window Shopping with a romantic comedy vibe that it mostly manages to sustain for the rest the novel.

It’s hard not to like Stella or Aidan almost instantly, two people from vastly different worlds and backgrounds who find a commonality of just about everything that night, with Aidan setting in train a lifechanging series of events when he offers Stella, almost on a whim but with a little bit of lustful attraction at work too, a test gig to see if the budding window designer, whose nascent career was naturally derailed by four years in prison, can come up with a more arresting and commercially successful window display.

Tessa Bailey (image courtesy Harper Collins)

It should surprise precisely no one that she does, with her red and green satin-bedecked, wonderland of stars and shimmering dresses sending a gasp through the staff, among them her new friend Jordyn, and of course Aidan, and bringing in customers in droves to a store which needed that kind of miraculous turnaround to stay viable.

It stamps Window Shopping firmly as a Christmas fairytale where all of the wrongs of the past can be healed though not, of course without some stops and starts along the way; it may be Christmas but that doesn’t mean everything suddenly gets magically better, and Bailey treads a nice line between redemptive wonder and the stark realities of the past still cruelling the present to some extent.

Having said that, this is also the point where this richly heartwarming novel does stumble a bit.

While it is lovely to think of Stella and Aidan who, each in their own ways, need life to be changed for the better, finding and bonding with each other like two long separated soulmates, that initial witty light banter at the display window very quickly, and by quickly we mean QUICKLY, becomes a full-bodies, pedal to the metal with not much pause for getting to know you machinations in the middle.

That’s not necessarily a fatal problem because there’s a great deal of fairytale loveliness to like about this book which gets the possibilities of the season just right, but the rush to make Stella and Aidan a thing does rob the novel a little of the back-and-forth fun that makes romantic comedies, especially festive ones, such a potently appealing genre.

“I fell asleep. Curled up at the foot of his one-of-a-kind Christmas tree, head in his warm lap, listening to stories about Aunt Edna, surrounded by foot after foot of popcorn on string. We’d been talking for hours. Favorites. Likes and dislikes. His honey company. Growing up in Tennessee versus Pennsylvania. How I sketched store window designs in Bedford Hills to pass the time. His favorite spy movies. We even speculated on the state of Jordyn and Seamus’s romance, which Aidan has been pretending not to notice–as if I could like him any more than I already do. I’ve never been so relaxed in my life as I was last night. Not that I can remember … (PP. 203-204)

This is also a lot of erotic elements to the novel, which is fine if you like the idea of Fifty Shades of Grey meeting a winter wonderland, and honestly against the backdrop of how much Stella and Aidan almost instantly love, want and need each other it all kind of makes sense, but again it all feels just a little too rushed and does rob their coming together of some of its magically romantic stardust.

Still, overall Window Shopping is a happy little joy where two people who need a break, again in starkly divergent ways, get one, where others find love and happiness and where a broken friendship actually gets a second chance when it seems nothing can fix it.

There are no doubt those who think all this festive happy-ever-after is utterly unrealistic and downright silly, but that’s missing the point for those of us who love Christmas almost more than life itself, because no matter how stressful and hard your life has been, there is something miraculously wonderland about a time of year which offers all kinds of chances for starting over.

Baily absolutely nails the feel and excitement of the season, delivering up for the most part with richly-drawn characters and classic sitcom-worthy dialogue, a soul-restorative festive tale in Window Shopping which reassures that no matter how dark and lost life may get that there’s always hope for a second chance, and that it might arrive when you least expect it, changing your life, not just at Christmas but all throughout the year too, and frankly who wouldn’t want that to happen?

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