Book Review: 'Christmas Bells'

Thursday, November 26, 2015

Jennifer Chiaverini. Dutton, 317 pp. $25.95

Christmas season, Christmas book. I figured it was fitting.

Jennifer Chiaverini is probably best known for her novel, "Mrs. Lincoln's Dressmaker," which became a New York Times bestselling novel a few years ago. She's written quite a long list of books, however, including other bestsellers "The Spymistress," "Mrs. Lincoln's Rival," "Mrs. Grant and Madame Jule" and the "Elm Creek Quilts" series. As you can probably see from the titles, much of her work is in historical fiction.

"Christmas Bells" is half historical fiction, half contemporary fiction. Reading it was kind of like watching a Hallmark holiday film, somewhat nostalgic and campy, but heartwarming and something you have to do this time of year.

The historical fiction part of "Christmas Bells" tells the story of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and the events leading up to and surrounding his poem, "Christmas Bells." I'm going to assume that this novel is inspired by the poem, and certainly named after it.

On the contemporary fiction-side, Ms. Chiaverini takes a single evening -- a rehearsal of the children's choir at St. Margaret's Catholic Church in Boston, Massachusetts -- and tells stories of several different characters present at that rehearsal. Sophia is a school choir teacher, and the director of the choir, who just found out the music program is being cut at her school. Lucas, the pianist, isn't all that religious but enjoys the church's youth choir program, and has quietly fallen in love with Sophia. Two of the children are facing their first Christmas potentially without their father, and the priest of the church is weighed down by different viewpoints in his family.

I enjoyed how all of the contemporary stories were woven together. Often, Ms. Chiaverini makes connections I wouldn't have even thought of, but help tie every character together. Between the historical fiction and the contemporary fiction, I connected more with the characters in the contemporary fiction, partly because their experiences were more relatable.

The story did seem a little off-balance, however. Every other chapter reverted back to Longfellow and his family, and each of the modern-day stories focused on a different character. Right when I became engaged with one character and his or her story, the chapter changed and I didn't really hear from them again, at least not directly.

I understand what Ms. Chiaverini was trying to do, and I really like the concept -- paint the scene using the experiences of several people there. It's a great way to tell a story. But I think the historical fiction element overpowered the story, and it didn't really connect with the modern-day elements of the tale. They didn't really fit, to the point that they seemed to compete with each other.

As a holiday book, "Christmas Bells" fits well with the genre of stories that people gravitate to. As a story, I almost felt like it needed more time and space to really bring out the characters and the experiences they had to share.

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