Don’t be misled by the title, “Shakespeare’s Christmas” is is not a “Christmas Special” where we get to see the people of the small town of Shakespeare acting as if they were in a remake of “It’s A Wonderful Life”. It is the darkest, and I think the best, book in the series so far. It’s set before, not at Christmas and most of it takes place outside of Shakespeare.
The mystery in “Shakespeare’s Christmas” is not a polite “whodunnit” murder under the mistletoe, but the death of a young mother, knifed and left to bleed out in the snow, and the search for a monster who preys on children while masquerading as a family friend. It has enough twist and turns to keep you guessing and enough evil to evoke rage in the reader.
As with the first two books, the thing I enjoyed most was the continuing development of Lily Bard. It’s clear to me now that the five books in the series track Lily’s evolution from someone who has isolated herself so that she can cope quietly with the task of staying alive from day-to-day, to someone who has taken the risk of creating a life that she values with people that she loves, even though she is always afraid of the vulnerability to loss and grief that this could produce.
In “Shakespeare’s Christmas”, Lily has reluctantly come back to her home town to attend her younger sister’s wedding. She knows that she will have to put on her company manners for the wedding showers and rehearsal dinners but what worries her are not the formal niceties but the need to show herself to the family and friends that she walked away from, after her rape and mutilation, when she could no longer live with their pity or their pain.
There are no soft edges here, no Hallmark Moments, instead we get an honest exploration of how Lily copes with being back with people she loves but who she finds it hard to live with, not just because they grieve for who she was but because she no longer wants to be that person.
In her mind there is the old Lily from before the rape and the new Lily she is now: someone solitary, someone vigilant, someone strong enough to protect herself, someone who’s old life has been stolen from her, someone who can no longer believe that other people are fundamentally good.
Lily struggles to connect her new self to her family and her friends. One of the things that helps her with this is her encounters with children. Lily believes that she does not understand children, yet the reader sees that her honesty, her directness and her strength mean that she succeeds in winning their trust and their admiration. Like at least some of the children around her, Lily believes in the monster beneath the bed; she believes that safety is an illusion; that vigilance and strength are necessary to survival and that men are willing to use violence to get what they want.
What Lily learns from the children is that she has not become a cold, distant monster; she has become a dragon-slayer.
As events unfold, Lily also learns that part of her strength now comes from being with Jack. Typically for Lily, while she knows this to be true and suspects it to be good, she worries that it will make her vulnerable.
There is evil in this book. An evil made worse because, as Lily and Jack try to search out its source, they find too many potential candidates too close to home. There is also love in this book. As Lily does what she needs to do to make those around her safe, she finally comes to understand that she can be the new Lily, strong, honest, and wary and still be loved as a daughter, a sister, an aunt, a one-time lover, and an old friend.
The book ends with Lily going back to Shakespeare for Christmas. It is her home now. It contains the things in her life that she most wants to celebrate.
After finishing the book, I decided that to read the rest of the series back to back. I’ll keep you posted on my impressions.