On the first of December, Jill O'Leary -- until last week a self-possessed, self-assured career woman -- found herself up in the air, obeying her mother's order to spend Christmas in Luxembourg. (p.1)
Summary: Jill O'Leary heads back home for Christmas to small-town Luxembourg, Ohio. It's not something to which she looks forward. Her father, whom she remembers fondly, is no longer alive; she has a very rocky relationship with her mother, Regina O'Leary; and the last time she left, after a bad break-up with her boyfriend, Heath, she had run over his dog. But her father's business, the Luxembourg Inn, has an uncertain future in light of her parents' somewhat creative accounting and budgeting, so she returns if only to see if she can preserve anything of her father's legacy.
In Luxembourg, she meets a local investor, Garrett French, whom her mother gravely dislikes, who has been trying to make an offer to buy the inn. She also meets a mysterious Mr. Singh, a man with a polish and sophistication that is undeniably far beyond anything smalltown Ohio could produce, and whose very presence here in the middle of nowhere is a puzzle. Meeting Heath again goes much better than she expected -- he has settled down well and is contrite for his mistreatment of her; while Jill had primarily been feeling guilty about the dog, we learn that her doing so wasn't quite a matter of spite, but was, as Heath himself admits, rooted in the nasty temper of the dog. Throughout she has to deal with the passive-aggressive melodrama of her mother and the drama of her two sisters, Reagan and Del. Tensions with her mother increase, and come to a pinnacle when her mother demands that her daughters express their love for her and Jill finds that she just honestly can't. Everything seems a tangle and doomed to collapse into disaster -- until the knot of the problem begins to unravel.
The book is effectively a love-story, but it deliberately (and to good humorous effect) shunts the usual Hallmark-style romance off onto Mr. Singh and Jill's friend Amita, whose fairy-tale, love-at-first-sight, impossibly perfect romance contrasts with the actual love story at the heart of the book: a story of love of family (with all of its rocky aspects) and of how love develops between two very flawed people trying to find the happiness genuinely suitable for them in a world where fate mostly only allows a very unstable felicity.
In addition to reading it, I listened to the audiobook version, narrated by Suzanne T. Fortin. I think listening to the book, and not just reading it, brings out a few aspects of the story a bit more -- I think the humor particularly benefits from the living voice, which almost naturally brings out the passive-aggressiveness of Regina O'Leary, as well as the humor of the Amita / Mr. Singh sideplot. The family drama, I think, works somewhat better on the page, I suspect because much of the drama is actually dramatic drama, in the old-fashioned sense of 'dramatic': it arises from the complex interactions of multiple characters in a coherently framed scene, which is somewhat easier for a reader's imagination to supply than a narrator. It would be very adaptable to a screenplay, I think, which is perhaps a sign that it is, Jill-like, the true child of its mother the Hallmark Channel and its father King Lear. But in both formats, page and audio, it is an enjoyable holiday read.
In this fallen world, however, some people were better loved at a distance. For years, that distance had been the divide between Los Angeles and Luxembourg. Now there was no barrier to coming home: not Heath Albany's dog, not Mother herself, not even bad career prospects. Certainly, not close ties in Los Angeles. Her best friend there was ready to embark on her own adventure.
And some people were better loved up close, in person. (p. 122)
Cat Hodge, Unstable Felicity: A Christmas Novella, Oak & Linden (2020).