I must start by saying how much I loved this book – you’ll see how much I loved it when you read my review. But I have to be honest and say that it wasn’t what I expected at all. Maybe it’s my fault for having expectations based solely on the title and the cover – but I had rather expected Christmas, Claridge’s and bit of snowy romance (with maybe a little tinsel…). Actually, it probably is my fault – the blurb is quite clear, and both Christmas at Tiffany’s and The Perfect Present had Christmassy covers that didn’t quite represent the contents either. Anyway… on to what it was, rather than what it wasn’t!
I’ve rarely encountered such a thoroughly unlikeable heroine as the Clem Alderton we encounter at the start. She’s a party girl with a lifestyle I find really difficult to identify with – never staying with a man for more than twelve weeks, no respect for anyone’s possessions or feelings, perfect looks, no regrets about anything she does or whoever she hurts. But she must have some redeeming features somewhere – her long-suffering brother Tom plainly loves her, and she has a real and enduring friendship with designer Stella who doesn’t seem to be anybody’s fool. It’s clear she has a big secret that has made her the way she is. When she almost destroys her brother’s business through a wholly selfish act, and her attempt to make amends doesn’t quite work out the way she expected, she agrees to travel to Portofino – a place that plainly has history for her – to remodel a villa and try to save the business.
I was really struggling with the book up to that point – I honestly didn’t care about Clem or what happened to her, I just felt sorry for her poor brother. But the book turned around really dramatically – by the halfway mark, Clem was my new best friend, and the story became totally unputdownable with all its twists and turns, secrets and revelations, and I never saw any of it coming. The Portofino setting was really vividly drawn, and all the supporting characters were strong, believable and engaging. There’s passion here, but also real heartbreak and sadness, and by the time I got to the end I felt like I’d been through a wringer. The writing is really excellent – I was lulled into thinking this was a book about brand names and fashion and the lifestyles of the rich, and was totally won over when it turned out instead to be something tender and emotional and heartbreaking. Not the conventional Christmas read I was expecting, but I absolutely loved it.
Christmas at Claridge’s was published by Pan on 7th November, and is available for Kindle and in paperback.
Karen Swan began her career in fashion journalism – working at Tatler, Vogue and YOU magazines, as well as consulting to companies like Thomas Pink – before giving it all up to raise her three children and ADHD puppy, and to pursue her ambition of becoming a writer. She moved out of London in 2006 and now lives in the forest in Sussex, writing her books in a treehouse overlooking the Downs. For more information about Karen’s books, have a look at the Pan Macmillan website.