By Dorothea Benton Frank
Simon & Schuster UK
THE delights of Christmases gone by in her happily remembered past torment matriarch Theodora as she considers the squabbling, selfish, extended family she has managed to bring together to celebrate the event in the present day.
Common story this time of year, you'd imagine.
A depressed daughter married to a man who only seems interested in the money she’s set to inherit and a raft of in-laws woefully out of touch with the spirit if the season – and one another – leave her close to despair.
Set in the city of Charleston in South Carolina, this is a whimsical and unashamedly nostalgic seasonal yarn where anything is possible. And that’s just as well as it emerges that little short of a Christmas miracle will heal the festering wounds
The 93-year-old, long since pining her late husband, looks back fondly to the days when Christmas meant tables groaning with home-cooked goodies, elaborate decorations and long chats in front of roaring fires. Those were simpler days when the sense of anticipation and the spirit of togetherness fuelled unforgettable celebrations.
Early on, Theodora confesses a tendency, like a lot of older people, to romanticise the past. In her mind’s eye, she looks back over her shoulder: “There is my youth at the end of an extremely long foogy tunnel dug through time, hung with gossamer veils.” These she can swing aside to clearly see and remember how things were: “And it was wonderful.”
Coming to dread the Christmas that now lies in store, Theodora finds herself casting her mind back to Pearl, her grandmother’s “housekeeper/manager/caterer/psychiatrist/best friend without whom our lives would surely have collapsed.” Pearl was behind the Christmas preparations in all their glory: trees, garlands, decorations and food – lots and lots of fabulous home-cooked food. Like so many of her acquaintances, Pearl has passed on.
Just when it seems things can’t get worse, her present-day housekeeper reveals a family emergency that’s going to take her away for Christmas. Theodora knows a thing or two about food but, at her age, can hardly be expected to pull it off by herself for such a large number of people. Besides, she has bigger fish to fry in terms of trying to guide this dysfunctional family towards some form of reconciliation.
If only Pearl were around – she’d know what to do.
And then something truly remarkable – unbelievable, were the evidence not there for all to see – happens…
If you appreciate the seasonal delight that is It’s a Wonderful Life, chances are you’ll buy into this little charmer. Benton Frank has some lovely turns of phrase and it’s refreshing to see a story told through the eyes of one with so much experience of life.
It’s an easily read, page-turning tale with a seasonal message for all generations.
If the descriptions of some of the name-checked dishes are mouth-watering, the author’s job is done: the second half of the book is devoted to recipes for everything from fruited and glazed ham and rum balls to Priscilla Martignette’s World-Famous Lasagna. So if you like the sound of the dish described, a quick flick to the second section of the book will show how to make it, right down to the ingredient shopping list.