It is rare that my reading aligns with the season but for once I have done it. Ten Days of Christmas by G.B. Stern has been recently reprinted (as both an e-book and a paperback) and when the publisher offered me a chance to try it, I jumped. My only previous encounters with G.B. Stern had been her writings (with Sheila Kaye-Smith) on Jane Austen and I had been looking forward to trying some of her fiction. Here was an easy – and seasonally appropriate – chance to do just that.
It is Christmas 1946 and the extended Maitland family, along with friends, is all gathered in the English countryside for their first real family Christmas since 1938. They are determined to have a Glorious Christmas, complete with a play staged by the children, but there is no surer way to make people petty and argumentative than demanding perfection. Squabbles among both the adults and children upset everyone and everything goes sadly off the rails.
Conceptually, that sounds quite appealing to me. I love books about big families and it’s inevitable, especially when adult siblings and their spouses are brought together for any extended period, that little (or large) frictions will surface. The key to a good book is in how the author handles them. Dodie Smith did it brilliantly in Dear Octopus; G.B. Stern is not so brilliant. In fact, she’s positively lacklustre.
After the plodding open pages, where Stern struggles ponderously to describe the tangled web of family and friends convening for the holidays, there is promising period where it seems as though she might be able to pull it all off. This does not last but when she focuses her attentions on the children – their relationships, their anxieties, their very earnest devotion to putting on a good play – you have a glimpse of what a pleasant and even slightly witty book this could have been. But then she switches to the adults and the surfeit of angst and fraught relationships tips over into the ridiculous – and the quality of Stern’s writing declines accordingly.
It’s hard to decide quite where the blame lies. Is it the overly complicated family tree? The lack of tension throughout (even in the scenes that are meant to be sickeningly tense)? The hints at a romance that is neither convincing nor emotionally appealing? The weak overall structure? Is it that incredibly odd, disjointed ending, complete with a cheap death to serve as a catalyst for two other characters? It is, of course, a combination of all of the above.
Needless to say, this was not a favourite though I did not give up hope until the very end. It seemed so much like a book that could turn into the kind of story I love. Indeed, it reminded me indistinctly of so many other books and writers but, in the end, this was not a comparison Stern benefited from. Reminding me of Noel Streatfeild, Angela Thirkell, Dodie Smith, and (I dared hope) A.A. Milne only led to disappointment. In its way, this book probably has more in common with the melodramas of Dorothy Whipple (but without Whipple’s genius for plotting) and the quiet angst and flat characters of Elizabeth Taylor (but without Taylor’s gift of observation or her sharp wit).