From the #1 New York Times bestselling author of The Deep End of the Ocean comes this heartwarming Christmas story of a family who comes together during the holiday season as they learn a powerful lesson about love and to live each year of their lives as if it were their last.
A fourteenth wedding anniversary is nothing to sneeze at, Elliott Banner knows, but it's not exactly a landmark year—like fifteen, or twenty, when he plans to take his wife, Laura, to Paris. But when a headache on the drive home from their anniversary date—two days before Christmas—turns out to be more than a migraine, he wishes he had celebrated every year as though it were their last.
In this poignant, touching, uplifting story, a woman calmly gathers her family around her during the Christmas holiday to celebrate their lives together—both past and future—and to truly count their blessings.
A family history unfolds in a single night in this deeply affecting story that speaks volumes about love, trust, and letting go—a perfect holiday read that underscores the true meaning of the season.
“Mitchard’s gift is her ability to present her characters in a compassionate light, even when revealing them at their weakest moments.”—Us Weekly
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About the Author
New York Times bestseller Jacquelyn Mitchard's novels include The Deep End of the Ocean, Twelve Times Blessed, and The Breakdown Lane. She is also the author of The Rest of Us: Dispatches from the Mother Ship, a collection of her newspaper columns. She lives with her husband and six children in Madison, Wisconsin.
Place of Birth:Chicago, Illinois
Education:B.A. in English, Rockford College, 1973
Read an Excerpt
Christmas, Present LP
For weeks, he'd pestered himself over the fact that he couldn't remember whether this anniversary was the fourteenth or fifteenth. He would later regret the silliness, the mulling. He might have spent more time with the girls, taken the week off from work, made enormous resolutions and gestures of consummate intimacy.
Still, even in hindsight, a fourteenth anniversary sounded routine, neither a rung on the ladder midway toward a golden sunset nor an observation blushingly fresh and new.
A fourteenth anniversary, like, perhaps, a forty-second birthday, didn't seem to demand so much commemoration.
But one more year would be a landmark! Somehow, to have survived in relative peace and periodic delight for a decade and a half -- through the arid, sandy-eyed numbness of sleep deprivation after the girls' births, the unexpected and brutal death of his mother, the long, anxious week waiting for the results of the withdrawal of a microscopic bite of tissue from Laura's breast, Annie's meningitis (ten days during which neither of them finished a single meal, together or separately) -- seemed to confer a certain status on this marriage. A marriage of substance, which few of their friends could boast. Fifteen years of marriage in full would cry out for a slam-bang celebration. A high school reunion equivalent, a renewal of vows with Laura at the Wee Kirk o' the Heather in Las Vegas, Prada boots, costing half a week's pay, or a (very brief) cruise to the West Indies.
He thought, by using a ruse, he might question his mother-in-law, Miranda, inventing some twaddle about checking Laura's sizes (men being universally forgiven, even coddled, for ignorance in such matters). But he could not frame a question that would elicit the date from Laura's cool and sharp-eyed mother. She was a busy realtor, a woman of few words except where they concerned post-and-beam construction or Carrera marble in the master bath. She would not burble forth, "And that was the last time Helen and David went anywhere together as husband and wife ... " or "I'd just bought that silver Volvo ... " or "Do you remember how adorable Laurie's sister Angela looked; she was only a junior ... " -- remarks that could be checked against a family timeline.
Their wedding album had been no help.
It was inscribed with their names, the month and day -- but, at Laura's behest, not the year. For the same reason, the photos all were in black-and-white. "Color makes pictures look dated. I want this to be always new," she'd said.
They were married December 23, and all the women, including Laura, wore red velvet, the men gray morning clothes, with top hats -- even without the help of color film, he could remember the splash they all made, like bright cardinals and sparrows against the snow. The photographer spread huge sheets of clear plastic beneath an evergreen bower for outdoor shots. Laura peeked from under the hood of a wool merino cape trimmed with rabbit fur, like a character from Little Women.
The photos were timeless; not even a single car with an identifiable grille or body shape was visible.
He might have asked his own mother outright, and she would have felt no impulse to chide him. She would have been moved by his diligence.
He had missed his mother, more or less constantly, for two years, with the persistence of a low-grade fever that spiked in spring or at moments of acute need or tenderness. Laura resembled his mother in no way; she had different habits, preferences, and talents. But his wife still somehow recalled Amy, in common sense, in pure spirit. Laura still teased him about their first date: He had confessed he might never marry at all, never find a woman the equal of his mother. Amy had died of ovarian cancer, hadn't even lived to hear Amelia, the daughter they had named for her, say her grandmother's name.
Ironically, in just two years' time, if the Amelia of today was not talking, she was sleeping. Honoring his mother, he still sometimes called Amelia "Amy," especially when he was the one putting her into her bed.
Elliott's mother was the one who, by offhand example, had instructed him in the custom that husbands, not wives, were responsible for the construction of the wedding anniversary.
This seemed only fair.
He knew that Laura assumed a titan's share of the engineering of all the other holidays, getting up at four A.M. to wash and baste great birds -- one year jollying her brother, Stephen, late, when the girls were tiny and fuddled with sleep, into appearing at the doorway to their room in red-padded plush and white rabbit fur. Even Annie, the eldest at thirteen, still remained convinced she'd once glimpsed the real Santa.
Celebrating their anniversary was often deferred until New Year's Eve -- with school concerts, shopping, and the arrival of Laura's three siblings, Elliott's father, and sometimes his sister all crowding the week before the holiday. Her sisters and brother stayed with Miranda in the capacious Georgian brownstone she'd occupied alone since their father's death, when Laura was only three. But Laura insisted everyone squeeze into her and Elliott's tiny saltbox for a Christmas Eve feast of seafood and pasta. Laura made everything, from the pasta to the Buche de Noel, by hand, and her labors left her so drained, she could barely nibble at the elaborate annual brunch Miranda had had catered by the Palatial Palate on the following day. Elliott had a dozen photos of Laura, asleep on the couch at Christmas dinner. One year sometime soon, he often thought, he would protest; but he could not bear to interfere with the whispered traditions and sly confidences of the MacDermotts at Christmastime, when even the slightly chilly elder sister, Suzanne, and her precocious little boy seemed to loosen up ...Christmas, Present LP. Copyright © by Jacquelyn Mitchard. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
Reading Group Guide
It's a question we often pose to each other to start a theoretical discussion, but for Laura Banner, her last hours on earth are suddenly a very clear and shocking reality in Jacquelyn Mitchard's poignant novel. What does Laura do? How do her husband and family cope? This family faces an unbearable loss with no warning, and they each react with shock, anger, grief, confusion, and even humor as Laura gradually leaves them. Elliot, who began the evening celebrating his 14th wedding anniversary with Laura, must now imagine life without her. He must face his own grief while helping his wife to make lists, write cards for weddings she'll never attend, and say goodbye to their three daughters. He also finds a connection with Laura's mother, a difficult person who reveals something of her heart to him. Laura's siblings and her children each have their versions of love to communicate before it's too late.
What does death do to relationships, and what does it leave in its aftermath? Mitchard asks this question with an accurate, compassionate, and very human eye for detail. And this is ultimately an uplifting story about the strength and flexibility of love. Mitchard's characters are drawn with great honesty, and as they struggle through the worst night they've ever known, they reveal unsuspected strengths and weaknesses to each other; they begin to tell each other the truth of who they are.
Questions for Discussion
- Laura is given the shock of knowing that she has only hours to live. What do you think about the way in which she chooses to spend those hours? Although Laura's death is sudden and tragic, she is given the opportunity to see it coming, and to prepare herself. Can you imagine what you might do in her position?
- The title of this book can be read in two ways. First, it is about the present moment, and about members of a family being present with each other in a crisis. Can you also see ways in which each character receives a "Christmas present?" What gifts do they give each other? What is Laura's gift to each of her loved ones? What gift does Laura receive?
- Almost all of the characters in this story come to see each other differently because of Laura's death. Losing Laura seems to allow them to be more honest with each other than they've ever been before. Do you think siblings, and parents and children, tend to cast each other in rigid roles? Why is it so hard for these people, who love each other, to see each other accurately?
- A lot of the power of this story comes from its honest revelations about the parent-child relationship. How did you feel about the character of Miranda, Laura's mother? Why do you think Elliot is so angry with her? Do you think she was a bad mother? Did you change your opinion of her by the end of the novel?
- Were you surprised by Laura's revelation of her "momentary lapse" with the young man who sketched her portrait? Laura doesn't seem to feel that her brief adventure with the young man was wrong or a mistake, do you?
- How does the author show, through the Laura's daughters, different ways that children cope with loss? Do the adults cope with this loss very differently than the children do?
- What are some of the details in the story that make Elliot more human, more complex? He has just lost his mother, and now he is losing his wife. Do you see a connection in his relationship to these two women? Do you believe that people tend to seek out aspects of their parents in marriage partners?
- Dr. Campanile tells Laura that she has lived a "complete life," even though she is dying young. He seems to envy her in some ways. Does it seem to you that Laura's life has been fully lived? Does she have regrets? What compromises has she made? How does her death cause those around her to review their own life choices?
- Mitchard's style interweaves moments of memory and imagination -- past and future -- constantly. How does this work to make us feel the presence of time and lived experience in this novel? How do both the past and future play a part in what happens in this Boston hospital room, in a 24-hour period? What do these moments allow you, as a reader, to see about Laura and Elliot's lives that they themselves perhaps cannot see?
- What do you think Paris represents in this story? Why do you think the author chose this setting -- the Eiffel Tower -- for a new woman, a woman with the same name as his mother, to come into the lives of Elliot and his daughters?
- One of the things that concerns Laura as her death approaches is money. Rory is afraid that the family will have to move, and then elated to find that they will be well off because of the insurance policy. Miranda questions Elliot about his financial situation also. He feels that this is inappropriate. Did you? How would this story have been different if Laura had not convinced Elliot to take out that insurance policy?
About the Author
Jacquelyn Mitchard is the critically acclaimed New York Times bestselling author of The Deep End of the Ocean, Twelve Times Blessed, A Theory of Relativity, The Most Wanted and The Rest of Us: Dispatches from the Mother Ship, a collection of her newspaper columns. She lives outside of Madison, Wisconsin.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Check out the full review at Kritters Ramblings What a heartbreaking little book. It could be described as a novella, but I read it in physical form so it felt like the perfect little book to read. Elliott and Laura have been married for 14 years and have made quite the life for themselves and out on a date night near Christmas to celebrate an anniversary the tides change and they are suddenly wishing for more years.
If you're looking for a Christmas book filled with good cheer and happy tidings, Christmas, Present by Jacquelyn Mitchard is NOT for you. Reading the premise from the back cover promises that" a family comes together during the holiday season as they learn a powerful lesson about love and how to live each day of their lives as if it were their last." This is NOT a happy story, while there might be a message tucked inside that tomorrows are never a guarantee and that we should embrace the present as if is the only day we will ever have. As Elliot and Laura Banner make plans for their fourteenth wedding anniversary by attending a very wonderful play that Laura has been wanting to see performed by Cirque du Soleil only to have their car break down on their way home. Laura has been dealing with a horrible headache that she feels is a migraine, although she has never had one. She begs Elliot to take her to the hospital or at least call for an ambulance because she feels something isn't quite right. After considerable stalling, Laura begs a policeman to call the ambulance for her. Elliot can sense at this point that she doesn't look right and agrees. When they arrive at the hospital, Laura is whisked away while Elliot deals with the paperwork only to learn that despite all his efforts, Laura has had a rupture of a major artery in her brain and has only hours left to live. Even if he had called for an ambulance when she experienced her headache, it would have been too late to do anything. While the doctor believes some internet searching and calling some colleagues might yield a different result, he tells Elliot that she will continue to have seizures until she lapses into a coma and dies. I received Christmas, Present by Jacquelyn Mitchard, compliments of William Morrow, a division of Harper Collins Publishers. I guess the intent in the writing this novel is to embrace our days even more than we do now, because we always believe there will be a tomorrow. But like the Bible reminds us, life is merely a vapor. It is gone much too soon, and then we are faced with dealing with regrets for things we never did, believing we could always do it later. I would advise, NOT reading this during Christmas as the holidays are difficult to get through without reading something not so cheerful. I had hoped it would turn out differently but it doesn't. This is not a book with a happily ever after ending, unless it is a that the family will eventually move on, dealing with their losses in their own way. For me, I'd rate this one a 4 out of 5 stars in my opinion.
I read this book every year around Christmas time. It is such a great reminder to be thankful for what you have when you have it. And every year it aids in my tear duct cleansing. Totally worth the half day or so it takes to read.
Although the book was well-written, the story itself is not one I would like to ever have to read again. If you want a good cry, and you have an extra box of tissues (because you'll need the whole box) this book would be great for you. If you don't like stories that are sad from beginning to end, I suggest you skip it.
As far as I know, this author is noted for long novels; so this short work must be a real departure for the writer who rocketed to fame with 'The Deep End of the Ocean' and other hefty narratives. My point is this: 'Christmas, Present' might be to Mitchard's work what 'The Old Man and the Sea' was to Hemingway's canon or what 'The Long March' is to William Styron or what 'Sula' is to Toni Morrison. It's a perfectly formed, incredibly concise, deeply moving short novel. This is proof positive that Artie Shaw was right when saying: 'Simple is best.' NOT simple-minded, but simple in the sense that the story's contours, its characters, the time-frame and the details are all so incredibly right. Yes, it's a family-oriented novel (like Mitchard's other works); and yes it bears down heavily on the intricacies of parent-child relationships and also the connective tissue between a dying wife and her traumatized husband. But the magic here is in the author's control of her material: this book can be read in one long sitting; it's a perfect stocking-stuffer. It's also a short novel that will touch your soul. What a work! Grab a copy w/a box of Kleenex.