Only the most jaded of critics would deny that the Winter Holiday Concert had been an artistic triumph, and as far as Sophia could tell as the audience filed from the auditorium to meet the young performers in the cafeteria for juice and cookies, no one fitting that description had attended. ~ Opening of Christmas Bells
Christmas Bells by Jennifer Chiaverini
Christmas Bells by Jennifer Chiaverini
Fiction (Historical); 336 pgs
Jennifer Chiaverini's Christmas Bells tells the story of famous poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow whose family suffered a great tragedy in 1863, at at time when the country was divided and in the midst of Civil War. In his grief and pain, Longfellow carried on, trying to keep his family safe, wishing against hope that his eldest son would give up his interest in going to war. Yet there is only so much he can do. From his experiences during that time, Longfellow writes one of his most famous poems titled "Christmas Bells," offering hope even in desperate times.
In alternating chapters come the stories from modern day Massachusetts: of a music teacher who has just received news she will be losing her job at the end of the school term and who will be directing the children at her Catholic Church in a performance of that famous Longfellow poem turned hymn; the piano player and his unrequited love; of a family separated from their father/husband who is fighting overseas; a widow who has recently had to say goodbye to her beloved husband; and those of a priest and nun, both who are dedicated to their Church and their parishioners.
I was enamored with the stories of the past and present, each compelling in their own ways. It took me a moment to realize the author's intent in the format of the novel, but once I did pick up on it, I was quite impressed. The title and novel reflect Longfellow's poem, of course, or rather a song, and the chapters fall in a similar order--the verses being Longfellow's story and the interconnected modern day stories being more chorus-like, with the final chorus coming at the end. It fits with the style of the actual poem as well. It's beautiful in its own way. If the novel suffered anywhere, it was in the fact that the past and present stories weren't more obviously connected other than for the poem itself and the setting.
Of all the modern day stories shared, the one that drew me in the most (and which received the most page time) was of the soldier's family who were all dealing with their missing him in their own way. Each member of the family receives their own chapter, from the two children to the wife. It was impossible not to feel for the characters and hope for a happy result in the end. My favorite character though was the elderly nun, whose outlook on life was inspiring. She brought wisdom with her as well. She is one of those characters I wish could step out of the book and The other stories featuring other characters were also endearing in their own ways. Stories of loss and love, of friendship and hope.
As is often the case in novels like this, the historical story is the one that most pulls me in, and with Chiaverini's novel, this time was no different. I did not know much about Longfellow nor his family's history before hand. I could understand his grief and also his protectiveness of his family, especially in a time of war and uncertainty. I could also understand where his eldest son was coming from. Chiaverini uses broad strokes to color the politics of the time, the division between states, the breaking up of a country and the eventual end to the war.
This was my first novel by Jennifer Chiaverini, but it certainly will not be my last. I came away from Christmas Bells with positive feelings about it. I liked the way the modern stories were wrapped up--fitting for a Christmas novel and the sentiment that was carried throughout the stories. And I enjoyed the historical look at the story behind the poem, "Christmas Bells." While the two time lines did not meld together as perhaps they could have, I did appreciate the creativeness of the way the novel was written.
To learn more about Jennifer Chiaverini and her books, please visit the author's website.
Source: I received an e-copy of this book for an honest review from the publisher via NetGalley.
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