Review | The Christmas Lights, Karen Swan

41589390One of my favourite parts of the holiday season is all the holiday-themed romances coming out. I love all the Hallmark movies and Harlequin titles coming out around this time — the cheesier the better. So with a title like The Christmas Lights, I fully expected the Karen Swan novel to be along the same lines.

Despite the title, it wasn’t quite as Christmas-themed as I expected (the heroine wants Christmas in a cold country, the hero helps her and other characters with the tree, but there’s none of the usual holiday cheesiness). Still, it’s a lovely story, with a very sweet friends-to-lovers romance, and it’s set in a snow-swamped, icy small mountain town in Norway, so it’s a perfect story to enjoy with a hot cup of cocoa.

The Christmas Lights is about a pair of lifestyle bloggers and real-life couple Bo and Zac. Travelling with their manager/photographer Lenny, they’ve branded themselves the Wanderlusters, and share beautifully curated photographs of their adventures around the world with over 9 million followers. From the beginning of the novel, it’s clear Bo isn’t as happy with their lifestyle as she used to be — she misses home and wishes she and Zac could have more privacy.

Enter their latest adventure: a month in a remote shelf farm in Norway run by the ruggedly handsome but taciturn and often grumpy Anders, and his feisty 96-year-old grandma Signy. The farm is on a tiny ledge on the side of a mountain, accessible only through a ladder of metal rungs down the mountain’s face or via Anders’ helicopter, so it’s totally within Bo and Zac’s brand of ‘roughing it’ like locals do.

There are minor subplots about the beautiful marketing manager who joins them at the farm and an Instagram troll who may be stalking Bo in real life as well as on the Internet, but the crux of the story for me lies in the relationship between Bo and Anders. I love how gradually their friendship develops — Bo realizes that Anders is a different person when he’s with just her, because he’s more relaxed and while still taciturn, isn’t quite as grumpy as he often appears.

I also love how complex the characters are. Even though it may be easy to write Zac off as selfish and self-absorbed, Swan takes care to portray him as a major adrenaline junkie, and this helps us understand why he’s more into the whole social media thing than Bo is. I also love how Swan manages to show how sweet and caring Anders is, without giving up his natural reserve — he’s still mostly grumpy, but with a squishy heart within.

There’s also a parallel story line running throughout about Signy’s childhood. With these types of books, I’m often more intrigued by the historical storyline than the contemporary one, but in this case, I never really got engaged in Signy’s story. Most likely, it’s because she was only 14 when the major events in her story happen, and so wasn’t privy to some of the more compelling elements — I think I’d much prefer to have heard from her older sister Margot. Swan does try to draw some symbolic parallels between Signy and Bo, but it felt weak.

Like any good holiday read, the ending was heartwarming and sweet. I thought some elements were wrapped up somewhat abruptly, and I wasn’t thrilled with how they ultimately dealt with the Instagram troll (like, I understand the emotions behind it, but yikes). But overall, I enjoyed the book.

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Thank you to Publishers Group Canada for a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

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