If I were headed for a desert island and were allowed to take only one Christmas romance, I’d take one by Carla Kelly. The problem would be choosing just one. Of course, I could take Carla Kelly’s Christmas Collection, published last year by Cedar Fort. It includes four of her novellas previously published in the Signet Regency Christmas anthologies: “The Christmas Ornament” (A Regency Christmas, 1998), probably the most light-hearted of Kelly’s stories, with an Oxford scholar as hero and a pair of matchmaking fathers; “Make a Joyful Noise” (A Regency Christmas Carol, 1997), with a hero who finds his heroine when his mother gives him the task of recruiting new voices for a choral competition; “An Object of Charity” (A Regency Christmas Present, 1999), with a ship’s captain who’s coming home to an estranged family and the niece and nephew of his first mate, killed in action, for whom the captain feels responsible; and “The Three Kings” (A Regency Christmas II, 1990), in which the hero and heroine travel through war-torn Spain.
Each of these stories is a gem—not one is trite or predictable. But the collection doesn’t include my favorite Kelly novellas: “No Room at the Inn” (A Regency Christmas IX, 2002) in which a heroine named Mary takes shelter from a storm in the home of Joseph Shepard and finds a house filled with love (all in the midst of class issues and family dynamics), and “Let Nothing You Dismay” (Regency Christmas Wishes, 2003), in which a solicitor known as “the patron saint of lost causes” goes home for Christmas and finds healing and love with an unlikely heroine.
How can I resist the generationally linked stories of Coming Home for Christmas (Harlequin, 2011): “A Christmas in Paradise,” set in California in 1812, with a Navy surgeon as hero and the daughter of an embezzler as heroine; “O Christmas Tree,” in which the heroine, a nurse in the Crimean War, is the daughter of the lead characters from the first story and a shy hero who totally stole my heart; and “No Crib for a Bed,” a Western that features another military doctor, the grandson of the doctor in the first story and the son of the nurse in the second story, and the down-to-earth heroine who saves him from what would have been a disastrous marriage. In typical Carla Kelly fashion, all of these characters are ordinary people captured in stories that reveal how extraordinary they are. That all of this is accomplished with Christmas meanings threaded throughout the stories makes them all the more treasured.
As wonderful as these stories are, however, I wonder if I could bear not rereading Marian’s Christmas Wish (Signet, 1989; Cedar Fort, 2011). Like all of Carla Kelly’s romances, this one is filled with flawed, human characters who come alive for the reader. Marian is young, not yet seventeen, with a candor that makes her seem even younger at times. But she has intelligence, a loving heart, and an irrepressible sense of humor. Gilbert Collinwood, Earl of Ingrahamis a wonderful hero—understanding, great-hearted, and surprisingly unlordly for an aristocrat of such high rank—and with all the appeal of a man who combines tenderness with an understated charm. Despite their differences in age and fortune, I can imagine these two growing old together, celebrating Christmas through the years.
But after a final consideration, none of these, beloved as each is, would my choice of a single Carla Kelly book for that island trip. I couldn’t leave behind Mrs. Drew Plays Her Hand (Signet, 1994; Signet, with Miss Grimsley’s Oxford Career, 2003; Cedar Fort, 2012). Some might argue that it’s not a Christmas book, but it opens not long before Christmas, the hero and heroine marry on Christmas, and it ends with an invitation for a Christmas visit from the happy couple. Moreover, the book is packed with themes like giving and forgiving and restoration that are at the heart of Christmas. Roxanna Drew, a beauty whose physical charms are surpassed by the loveliness of her character, is one of my all-time favorite romance heroines. She is a loving wife, a devoted mother, a passionate lover, and a human being with faults, dreams, memories, a rich interior life, and a well-developed moral compass. Fletcher Rand is another of Kelly’s heroic former soldiers who has been shaped by the horrors of war and yet maintains a sense of humor, an abiding kindness, and a willingness to do what needs to be done. I’ve read Mrs. Drew Plays Her Hand at least half a dozen times since I first read it during Christmas 1995, and each reading reveals something new I love about the book.
I’m happy that I don’t have to choose only one of Carla Kelly’s Christmas stories. I’m sure I’ll reread them all sometime this month, and I’m equally sure that I’ll finish each one with a deep satisfaction and a sense that I have truly celebrated Christmas. I’ll feel much like Captain Michael Lynch, the hero of “An Object of Charity,” who at that story’s end wishes the heroine a happy Christmas as “good will settled around him like a benediction.”
Janga spent decades teaching literature and writing to groups ranging from twelve-year-olds to college students. She is currently a freelance writer, who sometimes writes about romance fiction, and an aspiring writer of contemporary romance, who sometimes thinks of writing an American historical romance. She can be found at her blog Just Janga and tweeting obscure bits about writers as @Janga724.