Amy E. Reichert. Once Upon a December. Berkley, 2022. 336 pp. ISBN 9780593197790. $17.00
The concept of this fantastical romance: Brigadoon, but a magickal Christmas village instead of an idyllic Scottish one (and the female lead is the one who stumbles into the land set apart from time) is sweet and well-developed. Astra Noel Snow thinks there is something vaguely familiar about the hottie that sells her the most delicious cherry almond kringle pastry and can’t quite place him… but Jack Clausen knows she has stopped by almost every time the Julemarked (Yule Market) appears in Milwaukee. When he finally gets up the nerve to ask her name, their chemistry is off the charts, but Jack isn’t able to communicate his time restrictions, and Astra is disappointed to return from Christmas in Florida with her parents to find a brick wall where the Julemarked used to be, and her friend’s memories of it are fuzzy at best.
She spends the year fighting with her ex-husband about shared custody of Bernie (their dog) and dreaming of Jack. The next December first, Astra’s waiting to confront Jack when the Julemarked reappears, demanding an confirmation of her suspicions. They now have three and a half weeks to court while Astra has to decide if she wants to trade her library job, two parents, three best friends, and four seasons for a future and a family with Jack; it seems out of the question that he would leave the Julemarked when it’s so perfect and his work is so fulfilling.
It turns out the Julemarked has no currency, no WiFi, and a slow, peaceful pace. Hidden from sight like 12 Grimmauld Place and resembling a holiday Diagon Alley, the market appears from Dec 1-through midnight on Christmas Eve, popping up annually in a new spot each time, selling handmade items–toys, sweaters, pottery, baked goods–that the locals purchase as holiday gifts. The residents get a break through New Years… and then the Julemarked pops up somewhere else (a year later in real time but only a week later, for them) and it’s Christmas, again.
Strong in Danish culture and rooted in place, the library job details felt a little like pandering and unrealistic. The female friendships are strong but the relationships don’t pass the Bechdel test. The sexual tension is rich but the sex is behind closed doors. The worldbuilding is very complete and highly sensory: you can almost smell the hot cocoa and caramelized potatoes, and hear the clock striking. The structure is well-executed, with past encounters filling in the fifteen years of backstory from Jack’s point of view. Berkley has produced some stellar romance novels, and I appreciate the branching out into a fantasy holiday romance, but the narrative sometimes reflects from poor editing, with words or phrases repeated multiple times, sometimes within a few pages of one another, such as descriptions of Ronnie, Steph and Cassie which also suffer from the dreaded telling instead of showing. There are 14 religious holidays celebrated in December, and only Christmas gets a mention. The cast is not diverse. I didn’t find the public drinking or binge drinking or Astra’s tactics to get her dog above board. The ending was not entirely predictable;I might have even teared up a little! but I felt a little emotionally manipulated with Astra’ (Reichert’s?) choices.
I wavered between 2/12 and 3 stars. This was charming, but another pass by an editor might have made for a stronger book. Still, I could see it cinematically while I read, and Once Upon A December would make a great Hallmark movie. It will find its audience.
Bonus half star for the Hans Christian Anderson allusions and biographical details.
I received a free advance reader’s review copy of #OnceUponADecember from #NetGalley.