Wendy: Christmas is a time of year when, as a nation, a culture, a people, we willingly and gleefully suspend our disbelief. A credible tale really isn’t even required. Take for example that man in red who lives in the most inhospitable place in the world, surrounded by toy-making halflings, who chooses as his mode of transportation a flying reindeer powered ragtop. If those circumstances are dismissible, then his ability to cover the world in a single night is ten steps beyond implausible, and his shimmying down chimneys actionable. And yet, we don’t simply believe, we fight to believe.
It is in this spirit and season of whole-hearted belief that we embrace stories sprinkled with Christmas magic: snowmen that come to life, angels sent to show us what would have been or could yet be, Scrooges who find redemption. Carly Alexander’s The Secret Life of Mrs. Claus has a Christmas magic of its own, just not the sort that requires the suspension of disbelief. Bridging the three stories of this anthology is one Mrs. Claus suit that, as Olivia Todd from “The Nutcracker” says, “I’m telling you, Sarah Jessica Parker, would wear this dress at a Christmas party.” The red velvet and white fur trimmed garment does not, in itself, possess otherworldly powers. It does open windows of opportunity for the women who wear it by allowing them contact with new people; that, forces a change in their perspectives. It’s through good old fashion growth of character that Alexander’s heroines change their lives. The suit is only nice packaging.
The first and longest of the novellas, “The Nutcracker,” is set in Baltimore where returning native Olivia, a former Rockette, recovers from the injury that sidelined her dancing career and pines after the man who left her. The ex, Bobby, is back in Baltimore too, to produce a television show staring a dancer named Olivia who is portrayed by an actress that looks to much like the real Olivia for comfort. Olivia takes a job at Rossman’s Department Store portraying Mrs. Claus and begins counting the days until she’s back in New York and on stage at Radio City Music Hall once again. She wishes for a “do-over” — perhaps meaning another shot at Bobby or her dancing career back, but time as Mrs. Claus and with seventh grade flame Woody, a man stuck like glue to Baltimore, compel Olivia to re-examine who she is and why she wants the things she does. This story, while engaging and enjoyable, is outshone by the second and third offerings. It’s hampered by its odd length, 166 pages, and characters who feel older than their chronological years.
“Christmas Mouse,” possibly the most heartfelt and touching of the three stories centers around Cassie as she raises her son Tyler and fights for his father TJ’s involvement in their child’s life. Mr. Buchman, an axe wielding executive from Rossman’s Chicago headquarters, lands in San Francisco intent on spending cuts and heading up a turnaround for the flagging store. He soon has the entire staff pulling double duty, including Cassie who moves from window display designer to Mrs. Claus, the very same Mrs. Claus suit that spent the previous Christmas in Baltimore. Cassie and Buchman are quickly caught up in a physical relationship that has each yearning for something deeper. The soul of this story is Cassie and Tyler’s relationship and her hopes and dreams, as well as fears, for her son. Cassie’s feelings for her son are poignant and the most honest and real emotions of the anthology.
“Miracle on the Magnificent Mile” brings the red suit and the book back to Chicago. Meredith Rossman, heir apparent to the CEO position in her family’s company, no longer believes in the Christmas that has become synonymous with her family and their department stores. After loosing her parents on Christmas day, the holiday is a joyless one and simply an opportunity to bring sales up. Forced into the Mrs. Claus suit (it was, after all, sewn by her grandmother), Meredith’s begins to feel again, first with Nick, a Christmas hire playing Santa—or is he only playing?—and then when she reconnects with her departed parents by continuing on in the generous and giving manner they lived by.
Olivia, Cassie, and Meredith are intelligent yet humanly flawed. It is their missteps that propel the stories and the real and believable way they each struggle to regain their footing that forces the reader to root for them. They often share similarities with their Chick Lit sisters, but these women have a greater depth and profundity of emotion.
The Secret Life of Mrs. Claus focuses on the whole of the women’s lives versus the single focus on the evolution of a newly emerged couple as in romance. But, each woman finds romance. The men Alexander creates for her heroines are remarkable for their tenderness. From Woody’s fear in “The Nutcracker” of risking his heart, to Buchman’s wish in “Christmas Mouse” that Cassie’s tears be for him, to Nick’s quiet need for acceptance in “Miracle on the Magnificent Mile” these men are heroes without the gruff arrogance, machismo, and alpha posturing typically found in the men who populate women’s fiction. In short, there is a realness to them that makes them larger than life.
In addition to the Mrs. Claus costume, the novellas are lead into by a prologue that introduces the Rossman family—including Meredith—and the chain of stores. Then, they are followed by an epilogue that catches up with the women and their lives the Christmas after the last story. The novellas are all written in first person, a perspective Alexander handles well. Unfortunately, an omniscient viewpoint is used in the prologue and thus those pages never rise to life, the prose being far too wooden, standing in sharp contrast to both the novellas and the epilogue, where Alexander bring in yet another perspective: third person.
The Secret Life of Mrs. Claus is solid fiction that places more emphasis on the “lit” in Chick Lit than the name dropping and pursuit of shoes. Alexander writes of people, not archetypes, who are beautifully flawed on a journey that is relatable. The Secret Life of Mrs. Claus further reminds us that the magic of Christmas is in the mind and heart rather than tales of the fantastic.
HelenKay: Holiday magic comes in many forms. In The Secret Life of Mrs. Claus, the vehicle is a handmade Mrs. Claus costume. When the sales at the family-owned Rossman’s Department Store lag, the owners and board members brainstorm ways to improve the numbers. Cutting costs and improving sales are common strategies, but the family matriarch has another plan – pump life into Christmas sales with the help of a Mrs. Claus character at the Santa display. As the costume makes its rounds to three Rossman stores, it brings love to three very special heroines in three funny and heartwarming holiday novellas.
The Nutcracker – The costume first lands at the Baltimore store and in the hands of Olivia Todd, a Rockette who is stranded back home, down on her luck and recuperating from a broken love life and a leg injury. Olivia spent her entire life running away from Baltimore, in search of somewhere – anywhere – better. With laser-like focus, she hits it big with the New York dancing career of her dreams and hometown boyfriend Bobby. But the big life turns out to be a little smaller than planned when Bobby spends more and more time away in L.A. trying to launch his own showbiz career then finds another woman to share his vision. He manages to deliver the news to Olivia on the same day she slips and suffers a near career-ending injury.
With no other options, Olivia returns to the city she never loved and the good friends who stayed behind. She finds temporary work as Mrs. Claus at Rossman’s. The greatest job perk is the sexy red suit she gets to wear as part of the gig. The biggest surprise is in seeing that good old Bobby has landed on his feet and created a television show called Olivia, The Nutcracker based on a nasty female Baltimore-hating character. From it’s premiere episode, Bobby’s show is a hit and Olivia becomes the most hated woman in Baltimore.
There is one person in town who is happy to see Olivia return – her 7th grade fling, Sherwood, better known as Woody. In the years since Olivia dumped Woody for better prospects, he settled into a stable life as an architect. He has a soft spot for Baltimore and an even softer spot for Olivia.
Olivia’s wit and sarcasm appear in the very first line of the novella: "After my involvement with Bobby, I understood why certain species of females devoured the males after the nuptials." The funny one-liners continue to fly throughout The Nutcracker. As Olivia recuperates, she begins to see Bobby for the person he is, and Woody for the mistake she made. The journey for Olivia is imperfect and very real. She moves forward emotionally, stumbles, falls back, then gets up again. Her realizations are slow and, at times, uncomfortable. In many ways, she’s more like the show Olivia than she wants to be. Having decided her life is in "do-over" mode, Olivia has to figure out just what parts she needs to remake and restart. Like all of us, she gets it wrong sometimes, and that makes her all the more lovable.
The pacing is fast and propelled by a likable heroine in this, the longest and least compelling novella in the anthology. The only problems here, and the problems are few, are that the story tries to tackle a bit more than necessary through a series of secondary characters, some of which clog the story with side action that, while interesting, take away from Olivia. The other issue is Woody. He is solid and good but not quite as exciting as you hope he will be. The perception of him is shaped by his admission of the affect Olivia’s years-ago dump had on his life. It’s a romantic notion but, for some reason, it’s one that weakens him a bit. Despite those issues, the plot is tight and focused and infinitely enjoyable.
Christmas Mouse – The next stop on the Mrs. Claus costume train is San Francisco and Cassie Derringer. Cassie is a single mom and the window designer for Rossman’s local store. Heavy budget cuts and a new business plan imposed by corporate hatchet man Samuel Buchman require Cassie to take on additional responsibilities at the store. And a second Mrs. Claus is born. Never one to shirk his duties, Buchman takes on a second task, too. He steps in as Santa Claus.
Cassie is devoted to her job and obsessed with the idea of nurturing a bond between Tyler and his biological father TJ, a fast-talking television star. TJ isn’t what anyone would call a responsible father. Having providing the sperm, he believes his job in raising Tyler is over. Cassie is determined to make him change his mind. She never knew her father and wants something else for Tyler. Her relationship with TJ is over, but she still turns to him as a friend, and for other things, as she tries to convince him to play a role in Tyler’s life. Cassie pushes TJ, but he isn’t interested. He prefers a kid-free life.
While Cassie works on TJ, a natural affection develops between Tyler and Buchman. Buchman is a tough businessman on one side and a charming normal guy on the other. Cassie’s attraction to Buchman starts out on a purely physical level and grows into something deeper. Not only does Buchman treasure her child, he treasures her.
Cassie is strong, yet filled with insecurities. Having never had a relationship with her own father, she sets an agenda for her son that includes one. In her laser-like pursuit, she loses sight of what Tyler really needs. Her choices are understandable and noble. Her faltering and failings are believable. She is not afraid of her sexuality or negative about her life. In essence, she is everywoman – flawed, funny, smart and dependable.
Relationships carry this story. The love between Cassie and Tyler. The love between mother and daughter. The loss of old loves. The finding of new ones. All of these themes come together in a sexy and fast-paced novella that charms without being cutesy and convinces without rushing the romance.
Miracle On The Magnificent Mile – The final stop is the flagship Rossman store and heir Meredith Rossman. Meredith is a smart and savvy young businesswoman. She learned the business at the knees of her now-deceased parents and in various classrooms designed to teach her book smarts. She falls into the "good with books but not so good with people" category.
At a meeting of the board, Meredith and her less-qualified cousin Daniel continue their competition to get noticed for their talents. Meredith’s proposal essentially amounts to cutting Christmas as a means of cutting costs. No one is impressed. Her uncle challenges her with a promise to recommend her for the board if she can increase sales by 50%. That challenge lands her in the toy department at Christmas and in the Mrs. Claus costume, just as her mother always wanted.
With her calculator, clipboard and ho-hum holiday spirit, she takes on the role of Mrs. Claus. The bad part of the job is all those kids. The good part is that handsome guy Nick who is playing the role of Santa. He despises the material nature of the holidays and tries to show Meredith the true spirit of the season. Through her role as Mrs. Claus and with Nick’s help, Meredith comes to understand the real meaning of giving.
The story avoids the typical rich girl/poor boy scenario that is all too familiar in this genre. Meredith understands their differences but doesn’t depend on her money or prestige. She knows Nick has a secret but is willing to trust him because of the man she believes him to be. In the process, Meredith grows from emotionally stunted to deeply committed. That commitment extends to Nick, the store and her life.
Meredith’s metamorphosis is slow and steady. She does not wake up one day and change her life. Alexander avoids that easy pitfall by making Meredith’s change believable. The only stumble is in her quick attraction to Nick despite not having any information about him. The diversion from Meredith’s overall character strains credibility.
This anthology is a welcome gift from Alexander to her readers. All three stories spread holiday cheer. Each heroine is different, with individual strengths and weaknesses. The stories are unique and do not suffer from feeling repetitive or too similar. All three heroines are likable women to whom contemporary readers can relate. There are faults, but they are few and are easily ignored in favor of a fun afternoon read.
Wendy’s Question: The Secret Life of Mrs. Claus opens with a prologue that sets up the Mrs. Claus outfit and an epilogue that catches up with the three women who played Santa’s wife. Are the prologue and epilogue necessary here? Could the information conveyed have been seamlessly woven into the stories? Or, did it need to be set apart?
HelenKay’s Response: While I don’t have the anti-prologue/epilogue issues you do, I do find that many times the information can be folded in elsewhere. The prologue here didn’t work for me. It lacked the snappy feel of the rest of the anthology. The Mrs. Claus costume is the tie that binds the stories together. With a little tinkering, the information could wind through the stories without the extra prologue pages.
The theory on epilogues is that readers like to see what has happened to the characters they have grown to love. The writer side of this is that the story, if told correctly, should allow the reader to write the ending without being spoon feed the extras. Having said all that, epilogues have never bothered me. Maybe it is an issue with being unable to let go. Here, again, it is not the strongest writing of the anthology. But, where the novellas pushed the characters toward a happy ending, the epilogue fulfills the promise. In the spirit of the holidays knowing the magic continued just feels like the ribbon on the pretty little package.
Wendy’s Final Thought: The Secret Life of Mrs. Claus is worthy of the season.
HelenKay’s Final Thought: Skip the prologue and dive right into the magic of this enjoyable holiday anthology.