I Won't be Home for Christmas (by Amanda Prowse)

I first read one of Amanda Prowse’s books early in 2016, and liked it very much. So I put another of her books on my wishlist, and was given it for a recent birthday. ‘I won’t be home for Christmas’ is, as the blurb told me, about a mother whose daughter is the other side of the world. As that resonates with my own experience of having sons living in other countries, and the reviews were mostly positive, I thought it could be a good read.

Viv is the main character; she was abandoned by her husband when her children were quite young, and brought them up by herself. Her son is married and lives nearby but Viv finds her daughter-in-law quite difficult. Her daughter Emma has been backpacking around the world for the past few years. When a letter arrives for Viv, in Emma’s handwriting, she hopes it might be to say that her daughter is coming home for Christmas. Instead it contains a surprise invitation to Emma’s wedding… to a man Viv had never even heard of.

Viv shares everything with her closest friend Ellen, so she rushes to their local cafe and they discuss the invitation over coffee. I didn’t really take to Ellen who is loud and sometimes crude… and as the book progressed, I liked her less and less. I could mostly empathise with Viv, and indeed with the fact that she and Ellen became friends at primary school when they happened to be seated next to each other. But I could never believe in her as a close adult friend, of the kind where there are no secrets. Ellen is clearly generous and kind-hearted underneath her rough exterior, but somehow the close friendship with Viv never feels real to me.

The two set off on the lengthy trip to New Zealand, with a day’s stopover in Hong Kong. At that point I started getting rather bored. They visit many places of interest in Hong Kong, and do some shopping, but the lengthy chapter describing everything they see adds nothing to the story. I found myself skimming more and more until the last sentence of the chapter which looked as if it might lead to high drama….then the start of the next chapter sees the problem resolved, and only ever mentioned in passing as a joke.

I felt there was too much description once they reached New Zealand, too. We’re told every detail about Emma’s fiancĂ© Michael’s father’s home, and the lovely views they can see. However, we finally meet Michael, who seems rather a cold, workaholic person, and his father Gil who clearly finds Viv rather attractive…

It’s not a bad story, and I liked Gil very much. I appreciate, in general, novels that have middle-aged characters as the main protagonists. Of the younger generation, Emma is a loving, friendly person although I never quite swallowed her evident naivety, or indeed why she fell in love with such a different kind of person. Despite her having travelled so much, and met so many people, she seems to have very little sense of what other people might like, and gets things wrong rather more often than was credible.

There’s a lot of dialogue, most of it believable and well written. But it quickly occurred to me that the author seems to have tried to avoid the word ‘said’ in this novel. When using actions to designate who said what, that’s mostly fine, although there is rather a lot of shrugging, lip-curling, nodding and other gestures that made most conversations seem quite tiring. Even more disturbing was that so many people kept yelling, whispering, conceding, protesting, sighing, cutting in… words and phrases that didn’t quite ring true, and jolted me almost every time.

My other problem with the book is that there’s a crude and (as far as I could tell) irrelevant prologue which set the scene in a negative way. It introduces Viv and Ellen as eight-year-olds. They are very different in background, and even then it was hard for me to understand what they see in each other. If I had been Viv, after the conversation at the end of the prologue, I would have cooled the friendship rapidly.

On the plus side, there’s very little bad language, no intimate bedroom scenes or descriptions of anything I didn’t want to know about, and no violence. Moreover, some of the characters got under my skin, Viv and Emma in particular. I kept reading, sometimes for an hour or more at a time.

I was intrigued to know whether the wedding would happen. I was curious whether Gil and Viv would get together, and whether any of them would ever return to the UK. In the second half of the book the story progresses at a good pace with less description, and the ending is, on the whole, satisfactory. It’s perhaps a tad too neat and tidy for reality, but I don’t have a problem with that.

I’m glad I read the book, on balance; it’s certainly one to borrow from the library, perhaps for a holiday period as it’s light reading that can easily be put down. If you enjoy light women’s fiction, and don’t object to detailed description and convoluted speech tags, then you may well like this book more than I did.

Review copyright 2018 Sue's Book Reviews

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