Saturday, December 17, 2011

Book Review: The True Story of Christmas by Anne Fine (2005)

The True Story of Christmas is a middle grade novel which was originally published in the UK in 2003 with the title The More the Merrier. It’s the story of Ralph and his dysfunctional family, all of whom come to stay with him and his parents for the Christmas holiday. Told in a sarcastic tone that demonstrates Fine’s keen understanding of family dynamics, this book gives not the warm and fuzzy Christmas scene we might normally associate with the holiday season, but rather paints an almost painfully funny picture of a strained family holiday. It also involves a Christmas Quiz, which sounds like a good idea until it gets Ralph into trouble.

The colorful personalities that make this story enjoyable include a senile and ill-tempered grandmother who keeps insisting that she sees the vicar floating by outside the window, a spoiled little princess of a cousin, who is constantly performing songs and dances for the family whether they want them or not, Uncle Tristram, a 30-year-old arrested adolescent who exacts revenge when he isn’t properly thanked for his holiday gifts, and Albert, who’s not one of the family but keeps turning up in the bathtub nonetheless. They’re not the sort of people most of us would strive to be related to, but they do represent the truth for many kids in less-than-normal families, and they do so in a very humorous way.

The one-liners and other biting comments between and about family members are one of the greatest features of the book. Here are just three of my many favorite moments:

On page 37, when annoyed with one of her grandkids, Great-granny makes a pronouncement:

"If I had my own teeth, I'd bite you," said Great-granny.

Ralph, observing the family’s Christmas preparations comes up with an extremely apt metaphor on page 46:

What I was thinking was that, up to a point, Christmas is like a blown-up but not yet knotted balloon that's been let go by mistake. It goes bla-a-a-a-a-a-a-a-are! and then shrivels into not much.

On page 90, Mum gets involved in the snarky back-and-forth:

"You don't have a way with children," Mum said. "It's just that they know that, if they sit by you, sooner or later they'll hear something they shouldn't."

The drawings that illustrate the book are a great addition to the story as well. I loved seeing the scowling faces of the various relatives which appear at the start of many chapters, and I think the cover illustration is great as well. I chose to read this book based on the cover, and though I like the original UK cover, the American version suits the story perfectly.

This book doesn’t paint the sunniest picture of family life, which will definitely turn off some readers - especially adults. But as Anne Fine points out on her website, “the Mountfields are a very strong and happy family, nothing truly dreadful happens, and everyone will probably be invited again the year after next (if not next year). It is a comedy, after all.” This story never suggests that Ralph’s family isn’t a good family - it just recognizes the truth that the holidays don’t always bring out the best in everyone, and not every family is the Brady Bunch. It perfectly captures the ways in which the people we’re closest to can be the ones who drive us the craziest.

The True Story of Christmas is one of my new favorites, and I really recommend it as a comic respite from the stresses of the holiday season, as well as a refreshing and realistic take on the joys and woes of families. Recommend it to fans of the Casson family series by Hilary McKay as well as the works of Roald Dahl.

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