I had The Mischief of the Mistletoe by Lauren Willig on reserve at the library since before Christmas. I added it when I saw it on a list of Christmas novels, and decided I wanted to read a good Christmas story. Apparently other people had the same idea, and it didn’t reach me until mid-February. But I’m so glad I didn’t decide to cancel my hold on December 26th, or even after Epiphany, when Christmas stories stopped really feeling appropriate. For one thing, this wasn’t that strongly a Christmas story. And more importantly, it was excellent!
The book is set in Regency England, what I can only think of as Jane Austen’s England. Jane herself is in the book as a supporting character, as the sympathetic friend of the heroine, Arabella. Arabella is the lead character of the book, but has clearly been a supporting character all her life. A shy, unassuming wallflower, she’s the one at the party whose name no one can remember. I have a soft spot for characters who think they’re unimportant. I love watching them discover their inner depths and come into their own, and I loved watching Arabella find new strength and confidence. Here we have the extra bonus of watching the other lead, Turnip, also discover Arabella’s value.
Reginald “Turnip” Fitzhugh…where to begin? The name, I suppose. I can’t tell you how much I love it that the hero has a vegetable for a nickname. And not even a tough vegetable (I don’t know what vegetable would be tough–asparagus spears, maybe?–but I’m pretty sure turnips are not the heavyweight champions of the vegetable world). It fits him–and he’s a wonderful character! Endlessly well-meaning, charming and gallant, not a brilliant intellect, capable of throwing a punch when the situation calls for it, but not really all that good at derring-do and dashing exploits, frequently bumbling, very thoughtful, addicted to outlandish waistcoats. Somehow, it works so well and is so much fun. I love dashing heroes, but this time I really enjoyed a hero who stumbles more than he dashes–but rushes forward anyway, well-intentioned and grinning.
So you can check off the first requirement for a good book–great characters. If you couldn’t tell already, lots of good humor too. Occasionally this book tries a little too hard to be witty, especially in the dialogue, but most of the time it succeeds. Third, we’re given a very sweet romance. So, check, check, and check!
Fourth, there’s an engaging plot as well. If it had been up to me to name this, I would have called it The Puzzle of the Pudding (to keep some nice alliteration). Mistletoe barely features, while the plot is mostly set in motion when Arabella and Turnip discover a hidden message in the wrapping of a Christmas pudding. This launches a series of intrigues and efforts to uncover the truth, which kept me and the characters guessing until the end about whether they were dealing with international spies and a threat to England’s security, or with pranks among schoolgirls–or both. Turnip staunchly believed the former, while Arabella mostly leaned towards the latter.
It turns out that this is actually Book Six, in the Pink Carnation series. The Pink Carnation is England’s most elusive spy (in the style of the Scarlet Pimpernel). As near as I can tell from reading plot summaries, the books are all set in the same social circles, but focus on different characters. It’s obviously possible to start with the Mistletoe and enjoy it, since I did! I probably missed a few things, but I don’t think it seriously impacted my reading.
I read The Secret History of the Pink Carnation afterwards (it came much more quickly at the library) and enjoyed it as well–not quite as much, as I liked Turnip, Arabella and their romance better. Good enough that I will definitely go on to the rest of the series though! And if you go look up a plot description for the first book, every one I’ve read has been wildly misleading–it looks like it’s about a modern-day character doing historical research, and it is, but she’s only a very small part and most of the book is set in the past.
Since I normally review young adult books, one note I should make: this series is in the grown-up section, and while Mischief of the Mistletoe has a discreet, Austenish feel that I think keeps it appropriate for younger readers, The Secret History of the Pink Carnation is not so discreet. Fair warning given.
The Mischief in the Mistletoe was dedicated in part to “everyone who asked for a book about Turnip.” I completely understand where those requests came from. If I do a round-up of favorite characters met in 2011 at the end of the year, I expect Arabella and Turnip to be strong contenders.
Author’s Site: http://www.laurenwillig.com/index.php