Some books stay on my shelf for two reasons: either I’m simply putting them off till I can finish my current read, or it’s just not the right time of year for it. Jeff Guinn’s How Mrs. Claus Saved Christmas has been sitting in a corner for years, waiting for the holy alignment of enough free time during the holiday season, and enough interest in a strictly Christmas novel, and so, here we are now.
It should be noted that this is a sequel/spin-off novel from Guinn’s previous Christmas novel, The Autobiography of Santa Claus, which this book references a few times. While I didn’t find it entirely necessary to have read that book first, I don’t doubt it would have slightly enriched this reading experience. In light of this revelation, can this book stand on its own two legs?
We are introduced to Mrs. Claus—or Layla, as she is actually named—and how, for thousands of years, she has assisted Santa—er, Nicholas—and other immortal figures, like King Arthur and Leonardo da Vinci, in a mission to produce and give gifts at Christmas. But things get complicated when, in 17th century England, the Puritans take over Parliament and Christmas is in danger of being eliminated. With Nicholas away in the New World, Layla finds herself alone and in danger after she challenges the opinions of Oliver Cromwell, the Puritan leader. But Layla, while kind and patient, never gives up without a fight, and bands together with a few humble villagers to save their country’s most beloved holiday.
Based on historical events, this book is part Christmas-story-part-history. Much detail is given to any historical aspect of the story, from Layla’s upbringing and courtship with Nicholas, to establishing 17th century England. While it’s good to establish unfamiliar settings, and there is good intent behind this story, the writing is sometimes slothful and uninventive.
For instance, in one scene, a character is seen smoking outside a shop, and the book, very helpfully, says that people were woefully ignorant of the danger of smoking during this time. Or sometimes, the book will point out what precisely a character’s action or thought means, even though the reader can easily decipher it themselves.
A popular topic of discussion here is how it’s okay for opinions to differ. That is, although Layla is horrified that the Puritans force their beliefs on a whole country, she is fine with their disagreement—that they have a right to their opinion, and her to hers. And yet, she meditates on this topic at least three times. It’s like, because this is a clean, wholesome Christmas story, we have to keep Mrs. Claus a clean, wholesome figure who will never, ever, under any circumstances, do something wrong. Which I’m fine with, especially since Layla has more than one solid standoff with Cromwell. I just didn’t need her to make the same statement so many times.
The book also plays up the angle that this is in fact Mrs. Claus’s story, but she wrote it with the help of a “writer from Texas,” referring to Jeff Guinn. This fact is mentioned only once at the beginning, and it’s really only halfway realized. If Guinn really wanted to lay on the magical Christmas sweetness, he could have provided an author’s note that expressed his joy at writing for such a profound figure as Mrs. Claus. It might have been gimmicky, but at least that aspect would have come full circle, rather than being a sticky note in the corner of the story.
Because the writing tried so hard to be historical and descriptive, and the characters were so clean and wholesome, it didn’t really provide the inspirational warm-and-fuzzies that a good Christmas story will. Sure, love triumphing in the face of danger is awesome, and I will admit that the story structure is not terrible. But I probably should have read Santa’s story before this one, and there are better Christmas stories out there.