Mixed feelings, but it's worth a read
Commenté aux États-Unis 🇺🇸 le 4 août 2022
I had this at five stars initially, but then I read the second book, and it made me downgrade this one, too, because it took all the shine off it.
I'll start with why I initially liked it. I write spoiler-y reviews because otherwise what's the point so don't read this if you're weird about spoilers. I mean, it's basically a Hallmark movie, you KNOW how it ends.
The main character, Stella, while she got on my nerves at times with her commitment issues and secretive behavior, was interesting and well-rounded. Her relationship with Luka felt believable and natural. Their connection was warm and cozy, building into the right amount of steam.
The plot is mostly silly, which is to be expected with the genre. I was looking for a good way to turn my brain off when I saw this so I didn't want or expect Les Miserables or something, and it delivered what I expected. The Christmas tree farm that needs saving is typical, but there's no "big city girl adjusting to small town." She's lived there since she was 16 and hasn't done anything else. There's admittedly a huge gap, as far as I recall from what I read, between when her mother died when she was 21 and where she is when the book starts and she's bought the tree farm. Did she work? Did she go to college? How did she pay for it? Where did she live? How did she pay bills or get health insurance? Not a clue, but that's fine, the plot still played out charmingly.
Even better, there was a saboteur of the tree farm, which was quirky enough that it kept me reading, but not such a stressful mystery it affected the romantic plot. The way that turns out, while a little abrupt (needed a little more bread crumbs laid down in the beginning) is still adorable and pleasing.
The roadblock around the 3/4 mark that's always part of these types of books was aggravating, but believable, for a character like Stella who believably has issues with commitment and trust. It's resolved fairly quickly.
The writing is good. The dialogue tags can be stupid but that's apparently a thing in modern fiction now that I'll just have to grin and bear because I hate it ("Hi," I greeted--really, is 'hi' a greeting? Why thank you, mighty author, for letting me know that the character saying hi is issuing a greeting. News flash, you can just use 'said.') Otherwise, what blew me away about this and made it fly by was the style. The figurative language was deliciously Christmasy, but more than that, there were so many real-life details that made the story come alive in a way that even more poetic authors don't always manage, just by including the small things; looking out the window at someone walking across the street, that kind of thing. It's hard to describe but it was SO enjoyable to read.
Now for the bad, which is even worse because of how bad these downfalls get in the second book.
Stella's mother is the manic pixie dream girl trope and I cringed hard every time she was mentioned. She's quirky! She's a free spirit! She likes to dance in the kitchen to quirky classic songs! Whee! Frankly it's hard to be nostalgic along with Stella for a mother that moved her all over every two years for no clear reason and left her daughter with massive commitment, trust, and abandonment issues.
Stella's father abandoned her mother after she got pregnant, and apparently the mother never pursued child support which would have made Stella's upbringing a lot less dramatic, and there's no reason given why she didn't. Stella didn't even know who her father was until she sought him out after her father died and met her half-brother, father, and his wife. The wife is inexplicably kind to Stella even though she was conceived by the woman's husband while he was cheating on her, but okay, I can let that slide. Some people might be that nice. There's a little bit of weird family drama with her dad right at the end that comes out of left field and is never explained or discussed further, so otherwise it just adds a little more depth to Stella's character and a sprinkle of pepper to an otherwise sugary plot.
Luka is boring. He's an Italian boy who lives his mother and cooks great Italian food and has a big, loud, Italian family. He is, in every other way, not remotely Italian or even vaguely interesting. He works only in relation to Stella; I do still smile thinking of the way their dynamic is in the book, the idea of these absolute best friends who also happen to be in love with each other.
Which is where we get to the stupid part.
They are "best friends" after a gag-inducingly sweet meet-cute of literally running into each other and him offering to buy her a grilled cheese because she "seemed sad" for TEN YEARS without either making a move. SERIOUSLY. They date other people, too, which is especially confusing for Stella because she fell hard in insta-love with his biceps the moment they met and just...did...nothing? They've literally camped together, shared a bed, spooned, cuddled, the whole shebang, and not once did either of them make the smallest bit of a move or communicate anything about how they felt. At the very end it's revealed in a single chapter from Luka's perspective that he of course has been in love with her almost as long as she was with him but despite spooning her and cuddling her he, a guy who is apparently intensely lusting after her, never once even tried to make things more serious? What planet am I living on where two grown adults could lust that hard after each other and not make a move for TEN YEARS???
There's also a cutesy coo town betting pool about Stella and Luka and when they'll get together, but apparently nobody thinks to communicate this to Stella or Luka and persuade them into doing what they obviously want to do anyway. It's all sort of hand-waved away on Stella's side by saying that she "doesn't want anyone to leave her" but honestly after the first couple years you could reasonably assume you've got a good shot at being more than friends and not get dumped. But whatever, they are emotionally ten years old, so okay. Actually, that's unfair to ten year olds, they're way smarter than that.
On Luka's side there is zero explanation even attempted so I'll just leave it at that. He doesn't make a move because he...just...doesn't.
Anyway the farm is saved, though in a funny way I didn't expect, the couple get together, break up over Stella being stupid because of her parental issues, they fix it, happily ever after. Cute, cuddly, and extremely simple, with a surprising depth of feeling in the writing and the way the setting is described.
Worth a read if you lower your expectations, but I can't even remotely recommend the second book. I'll spoil that one for you, too: they lust, they pine, they get together, they get not together, they get back together. There is no plot. And the duckling never makes more than a momentary appearance. There, saved you some time and four dollars.
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