Title: Marian's Christmas Wish
Author: Carla Kelly
Published: 1989, Signet
Category: Regency Romance
I ordered this book because it was on JMC's AAR top romances list – and she's quite the Carla Kelly expert, so I figured it had to be good. And it's a full-length Christmas story, which is pretty hard to find. Yay!
Marian Wynswich is the youngest daughter of a family in trouble. Their father has died recently, leaving them with major financial problems due to his propensity for gambling (badly). Marian's brother Philip thinks that he may be able to save the family by marrying off the eldest Wynswich daughter, Ariadne (who is luckily beautiful and quite biddable), to someone wealthy. So Philip brings Sir William Clinghorn home for Christmas. Sir William turns out to be a silly, vulgar man, but he's rich and looking for a pretty, "proper" little wife. Ariadne is in love with the village's vicar, but she's apparently too weak to put up any protest. Marian, on the other hand, is not at all weak. She's used to saying what she thinks (and she thinks a lot), and what starts out as a passive-aggressive dislike of the toady little man soon turns into a scheme to get rid of him and save Ariadne. She's aided in her plans by her brother Alistair and Lord Gilbert, another friend of Philip's who came home with him for the holiday.
Marian and Gilbert quickly become very good friends. He's a serious man who's highly involved in very secret, very important, apparently dangerous diplomatic work. He was burned badly when a ship he was on caught fire, leaving him with an impressive scar on his cheek. He hasn't wanted to scare his family, which is why he didn't go to his own home for Christmas. Marian sets about trying to change his mind, even making it her wish on the Christmas pudding (an English tradition, apparently).
So that's not even all the plot; it is a lot more action-filled than I have found most of Carla Kelly's books to be. I do think the book has a slightly odd structure; it really felt like two novellas (starring the same characters) jammed together. The first half is your normal, nice Christmas story. The second half of the book is centered on a rather thrilling plot involving Gilbert's diplomatic work. I didn't mind the change, because both parts were really well done, but I still found it a little odd.
Anyway, besides that this book is completely brilliant. It is filled with the pragmatic, intelligent, kind characters that usually populate Kelly's books. Marian is very young (only 16!), so beware if that puts you off. But she is very wise for her age, and she is filled with a youthful enthusiasm that serves to startle Gilbert out of the gloomy oppression of his overactive sense of duty. The story is light and funny at times (Alistair especially is a riot), but it also has a certain gravity that keeps it from being fluffy.
The Christmas elements were lovely. I really have no idea whether they are historically accurate, but I'd bet they are. More importantly, the book has such a nice spirit to it -- the idea of Christmas as a time to appreciate your family, no matter how much they might drive you crazy through most of the year. It left me with fabulous warm fuzzies.