The Most Wonderful Time of the Year by Jenna Lawrence

themostwonderfultimeoftheyear.jpgHelenKay:  In contemporary romance novels a hero often holds a law enforcement job.  Whether he works for the DEA, CIA, FBI, police or any branch of the military, many times the hero is honest, strong and carrying a gun.  Like its contemporary counterpart, the historical hero is often based on a factual job – The Pinkerton Man.  Allan Pinkerton, considered the first private detective and a man of the utmost integrity, ran the Pinkerton Detective Agency.  He sent his men out across the country to solve crimes, hunt down the bad guys and sometimes take on the unfavorable role of squashing union activities.  The Most Wonderful Time Of The Year focuses on one of these upstanding men.  One who is lying to protect his cover.

Doctor Analise DeLery returns home to Omega, Colorado a broken woman.  Her family believes she has been off studying medicine in France.  They are right about the destination but wrong about how Analise was spending her time.  Truth is, she met a man, got used, dumped and pregnant.  The pregnancy ended with a premature birth and heartbreaking death.

Back home with her father, stepmother and stepbrother, Analise settles in for a marriage-free life consisting wholly of work.  No children.  No men.  No fun.  Then Pinkerton Man Tyler Morgan comes to town.  Only, Tyler Morgan doesn’t introduce himself as Tyler Morgan.  He’s pretending to be Deacon Goodfellow, a traveling minister.  In reality, he’s in Omega on the trail of bandits and stolen money.  He knows his prey was injured and likely sought help from a local doctor.  Tyler gets close to the family, including Analise’s doctor father, to determine what they know and if they’ve helped a criminal.

Tyler quickly learns the bandit he’s trailing is dead.  While he looks for the missing money, he spends time with Analise.  Their attraction turns to trouble when they’re caught in a compromising position.  This being a historical romance, that is the end of single life on the prairie.

The Most Wonderful Time Of The Year is a western historical romance.  Part of its charm depends on the blend of innocence and strength in the heroine.  Here, Analise’s plight from fallen woman to female doctor in a town where only male doctors are taken seriously is compelling.  The opportunities for conflict and growth are plentiful.  Unfortunately, the plot does not capitalize fully on this potential.  Analise has a tendency to feel flat and somewhat lifeless.  She is always strong and determined, but there are times when that is all she is.  She is not as fully developed or well-rounded as she needs to be to carry her portion of the story.  As the world spins around her, she understandably holds onto her fears and sadness, but her emotions rarely stray from a straight line. 

Part of the problem is a plot with simple and limited conflict that lacks the intensity to anchor and propel the story for approximately 350 pages.  There is a point halfway through the book where the secondary story involving Tyler and his assignment in Omega resolves.  With this issue out of the way, the plot and sexual tension become strained.  A late-in-the-book addition of a secondary character helps to carry the plot through to single-title length, but the side storyline feels contrived and unbelievable.  This addition is disappointing, in part, because the other secondary characters introduced up until that point play more active and understandable roles.

Tyler is the strongest figure here.  His motivation is clear and understandable.  His metamorphosis from no-ties to a marriage proposal is a bit quick, but his unfolding attraction is believable and based on more than just a physical appreciation  of Analise.  While some of Tyler’s reactions appear more contemporary than are appropriate for the book’s setting, his acceptance of Analise for who she is and where she’s been is refreshing.  The frustration is that his potential is limited by a romance with Analise that only rises to the level of lukewarm.

Wendy:  With a cute seasonal snow-scape and a title borrowed from a perennial favorite holiday song, it would be easy to conclude that Jenna Lawrence’s The Most Wonderful Time of the Year is a lighthearted Christmas romance.  Even the jacket copy suggests the season of miracles plays heavily into the plot.  That, however, is not the case.  Instead of a story with much mistletoeing and hearts glowing, The Most Wonderful Time of the Year uses the idea of Christmas in an attempt to add poignancy to a story that lacks it organically.  Without the yuletide trappings, this American set historical is reminiscent of LaVyrle Spencer with its lippy, strong willed heroine and crafty hero, though the book never reaches Spencer-like heights due to plotting and pacing that undermine the story rather than propel it to the climax.

The story’s construct—an undercover Pinkerton agent, Tyler Morgan, shows up in Omega, Colorado intent on recovering stolen payroll and immediately becomes enthralled with a beautiful woman, Dr. Analise DeLery, who he thinks may or may not be involved with the gang who stole the money—is straightforward romance fare.  Believing Tyler to be Deacon Goodfellow, Analise’s family quickly opens home their home to him.  Sharing close quarters with Analise, Tyler’s thoughts are consumed by her when he should concentrate on his assignment.  In short fashion their attraction and a well time storm leave the pair open to gossip and innuendo.  To save Analise’s reputation, a fake engagement between the two is cooked up. 

Despite Analise’s willingness—or capitulation as the case may be—to enter into an engagement for show, she is otherwise a twenty-first century character living life in 1885.  Newly arrived to her father’s home in Omega, Analise’s heart was broken by a Parisian lover and her soul shattered by the loss of her child.  Fearing the revelation of her secrets and unwilling to risk her heart again, Analise fights to keep the engagement a falsehood, despite her feelings for Tyler.  Her plans to open a women’s clinic in Omega seem overly progressive for the time her story takes place and her goal to do so spends so much time buried under the stolen payroll storyline and her emerging relationship with Tyler that its purpose becomes lost.

Tyler is a likeable hero with an interesting twist: prior to working for Pinkerton, Tyler was an actor traveling the country and performing on stages from coast to coast.  From that past life he culls Saint-like skill with makeup, hair pieces and disguises.  His personal history is overwrought and tragic—his first wife and their child died after an early delivery—though his actions do not carry the bitterness Tyler believes he feels.  He is quick to be enthralled by Analise and quick to fall in love with her with little thought of the wife whose memory has haunted him.  His arrogant and dogged pursuit of Analise is pure Alpha Male and it’s easy to root for Analise’s capitulation.

The Most Wonderful Time of the Year is hampered by poor plot construction.  Both Analise and Tyler are characters rich in back story and conflict, but their individual stories do not blend well to make a cohesive whole.  Tyler’s undercover work and the lies he tells Analise and her family are revealed and resolved when the Malone gang is apprehended for the payroll robbery half way through the book.  That, coupled with the early revelation of his past heartache, leaves him with little to do.  Tyler spends the second half of the story acting on what seems an impulse: to make his and Analise’s pretend engagement into a real marriage.  Tyler’s pursuit of Analise is charming and makes him a memorable hero, though without substantial outside conflict to keep these two apart, their romance is a forgone conclusion.  This story was crippled because the various subplots did not rise and fall together or in any way mirror or shadow one another.  With Tyler’s internal and external conflict dealt with, Analise’s internal conflict is left.  However, her lack of virginity and secret still born child are not enough to sustain the remainder of the book and Lawrence was forced to bring in something to menace the young lovers.  Analise’s lover from Paris shows up to ruin things for her and this plot point never rises above feeling tacked-on to the story because its inclusion isn’t innate to the story.  Had Tyler’s and Analise’s internal conflicts risen with the external conflict and action, with all three falling to the conclusion, this story would not have run out of gas prior to the actual ending.

The Most Wonderful Time of the Year is buoyed by the charm of the chase and the charisma of its leading man.  Though repetitive language and constant reminders to the reader that: Tyler was an actor, Tyler hated lying to the DeLry’s, Analise was betrayed, Analise could never get over her heartache, and so on, and an invented end-book conflict threaten to sink it completely.   

HelenKay’s Question:  For me this book suffered from an inability to wrap up and end at a logical place.  At several points during the story, the plot seemingly wound down to a conclusion only to continue on.  This wasn’t a case of having the conflict ratchet up and take off again.  Rather, the conflict stayed linear and a bit flat.  So, how does an author know when it’s over?

Wendy’s Response:  The easy answer is: when the reader can write the next page (thank you Donald Westlake for such a succinct point). 

HelenKay’s Final Thought:  A second-chance-at-love story that offers hope but lacks sizzle.

Wendy’s Final Thought:  The Most Wonderful Time of the Year isn’t as wonderful as it could be, but a compelling leading man lifts this book from forgettable status. 

You can purchase this book here and here.