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Friday, February 08, 2008

Sentimentality Kills the Story in Christmas Jars

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

Christmas Jars by Jason Wright is the kind of novel I hate - it's predictable, it's sappy, and it's wrapped up in a way that is completely unrealistic. In short, it's the kind of book that sacrifices good storytelling for sentimental sermonizing. In fact, I think I would have liked the book a whole lot more if Wright had written up his ideas as a personal essay instead of trying to integrate it into a fictional story.

His tale concerns Hope Jensen, a young reporter who has just lost her mother to cancer. Although Louise was not her birth mother, she discovered an infant Hope abandoned at a chicken joint and raised her as her own. Hope is devastated by her loss, a sadness that deepens as Christmas approaches. On Christmas Eve, Hope's heart cracks open a little further when she arrives home to find her apartment ransacked. What little she had of value is gone, including the $500 she had hidden in a drawer. As the police poke through the crime scene for evidence, Hope makes a discovery of her own - a brown paper sack is sitting by her front door. In it sits a glass jar filled with money; the only clue she can find are the words "Christmas Jar" painted on it in red and green letters. She can't imagine who left it at her front door or why. When she questions her neighbors, one of them points out the obvious: "Somebody was thinking of you. How lucky!" (24)

Hope's journalistic instincts kick in, and she jumps in to solve the mystery of the Christmas Jar. Searching in her newspaper's archives, she discovers a handful of letters to the editor from other jar recipients, thanking their anonymous benefactors. She rushes to interview the grateful citizens, but no one knows anything save that the jars arrived on Christmas Eve when they were in need. One lady even warns her, "This ain't about gettin' credit. This just don't belong in the papers" (31). Only one man has even a shred of information, but it turns out to be the proverbial gold mine.

Suddenly, Hope finds herself in the midst of the loving Maxwell Family, who reluctantly share the secret of the Christmas Jar tradition. Not only do they take her into their confidence, but they envelop her into the heart of their family. The only problem is they think Hope's a college student interviewing them for a research paper on small, family-operated businesses. They have no idea she's a reporter who's developing a story about their secret crusades to help people with their Christmas Jars. To get the story, which has a chance of earning a spot above the fold on the newspaper's front page (Hope's lifelong dream), she knows she may have to betray the Maxwells, whom she's come to think of as family. In the process, Hope will learn just how far-reaching the Christmas Jar tradition really is.

I actually love the idea of the Christmas Jar (I won't tell you how it works, since I hate spoilers) - I think it's sweet and fun. I just wasn't impressed with Wright's ability to describe it in a story. His writing is too generic, his characters have about as much individuality as paper dolls, and his plot is as neatly packaged as a professionally-wrapped Christmas gift. The story relies so heavily on coincidence that it's just not believable. In addition, it's so saccharine it makes my head hurt. I know the book has touched people with its message, I just wish it wasn't trying so hard to be inspirational. All the sentimentality just killed the story for me.

As much as I hate to admit it, my eyes did well up a couple times as I was reading Christmas Jars, so I guess it has some power despite all its flaws. It's a short book and one you probably won't regret reading - I'm just warning you that it's not great literature by any means. Having said that, I do want to recommend going to Jason Wright's site and reading the real stories of people who have given and received Christmas jars. If Wright needs an inspirational story, obviously all he has to do is turn to real people - in future, he should leave fiction to the pros.

Grade: C

Note: Many thanks to Shadow Mountain Publishing , who sent me this book to review.


  1. I felt exactly the same way about the book. You expressed it beautifully! I really wanted to like it too - the premise was creative. I finished reading his second one, The Wednesday Letters, because one of my kids gave it to me for Christmas. Once again I loved the plotline and the marketing capability of it. Yet as I wrote in my book journal, it just doesn't develop with the same pop and power that I was hoping for. I gave it a 2.5/5! I felt that the author got better with this new book, but it still just didn't deliver.
    Thanks for sharing an honest and credible review.

  2. I haven't read this book yet. Maybe at some point. I did read THE WEDNESDAY LETTERS and wrote a review. I liked it pretty well and have recommended it to several patrons that I think would like a frankly sentimental book (Nicholas Sparks lovers come to mind). Glad of your frank review and I will pick this one up at some point and see if it hits me the same way.

  3. Yikes! I should leave fiction to the pros? I have to admit, despite your scathing review that line actually made me chuckle :)

    Not bothered in the slightest you didn't enjoy it. That's the beauty of books. We're free to write them how we like, readers are free to connect and enjoy or toss it in the fire. I sure don't enjoy every book I read either, even when it seems the vast majority of readers have. (as is the case with Christmas Jars) 250K books are published annually in this country, we're not going to like them all, even if the neighbor does.

    Just don't tell my agent, editor, or the folks that compile the NYT bestseller list that I shouldn't be writing fiction for a living :)

  4. Inside - I haven't read Wednesday Letters, but I'm planning to. This one was just too much sentimentality with too little character development or real substance.

    Kay - Come to think of it, I'm not much of a Nicholas Sparks fan either. Or Richard Paul Evans, for that matter. Perhaps I'm just not sentimental enough for this genre - LOL.

  5. Hi Jason - I'm honored that you stopped by (and I'm glad you have a sense of humor!).

    To be perfectly honest, I think I would have loved a book describing the Christmas jar tradition and how it has touched real people's lives - a companion book, perhaps?? I just didn't care for the story - I thought it was too sentimental, too predictable, and too far-fetched. Obviously, I'm in the minority, but I just can't stand sticky-sweet fiction. Sorry :(

    As for the NYT Bestseller List (which is really just a popularity contest - bestsellers, like beauty queens, often lack substance), I'd rather see your books there than James Patterson's newest R-rated thriller. Obviously, your story has inspired a lot of people to do a lot of good, and that's a wonderful thing.

    Congratulations on your success - truly.

  6. I left you an award on my blog!! Have a great day =)

  7. Hey again, Susan, you're absolutely right, the NYT list a popularity contest. That's the point; it's based on sales. Good sales generally means people are liking a book. Not all, of course, that never happens. I read and LOVED both The Kite Runner and Thousand Splendid Suns. A good friend of mine liked neither, though both books have been colossal bestsellers.

    We've talked about the very idea you mentioned. Great minds! :) We're just waiting for the movie (2009) before releasing something like that.

    Keep up the spunky reviews!


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