Rejected by his own family for being gay, Nick has been forced out of his childhood home. For now, he’s coping, working hard in retail to put a modest roof over his own head. Determined not to let the sorry state of affairs bring him down, Nick manages to score a deeply discounted artificial tree to help celebrate his first Christmas on his own. It isn’t until he unpacks the giant thing that he realizes he is sans ornaments. Before a crushing sense of inevitable failure can overwhelm him, though, his best friend Haruto rides to the rescue, armed with the perfect solution: candy canes. Seeing how distraught the holiday, work, and family stress has made Nick, Haruto goes the extra mile and creates an wrapping paper origami crane to complement the candy canes…thus beginning a tradition.
Year after year, Nick and Haruto manage to make some time around the holidays to get together. Sometimes it’s well before, other times its well after the actual holiday—but every time they exchange silly little ornaments. Even better, as the years go by, Nick pulls together a group of friends he calls the Misfit Toys with whom he celebrates the season.
Boyfriends come and go, jobs change, life moves in unexpected directions. Nick falls in love with a seemingly perfect man; Haruto gets called back to his country-bumpkin home and finds a love connection. Yet the more time passes, the more Nick comes to realize he might be sacrificing his own hopes and dreams for an overbearing boyfriend. Just like Haruto realizes how much of his effervescence is muted by conservative living in boondocks Canada.
Fifteen years after being forced to strike out on his own, however, Nick finally thinks he knows what he wants for Christmas—he only hopes that Haruto feels the same.
This was an excellent short read for the holidays! First of all, it’s super holiday-ish. Each chapter is actually set a year apart; each centers on the end-of-the-year traditions Nick cultivates along with a group of friends that seems to grow by the year. This necessarily means that these are more like vignettes, but at the same time, Burgoine does an admirable job establishing the main and side characters while peppering in new ones every so often. At first, I was bit iffy on whether or not I’d really be able to feel any connection to any of the characters, but by the time I was a few chapters in, I was hooked. It’s as though we start off with a loosely described avatar of a character rather than one steeped in backstory, then watch the backstory being built up as we go. So rather than having to read 15 books to watch the characters grow and develop, we get all that satisfaction in one short story.
I’ll admit, the first chapter set me up in the Nick/Haruto camp so I was surprised when they got themselves friend zoned pretty quick. More surprising was watching one half of what I thought was supposed to be the main couple fall in love with another character, then seeing it happen in reverse with the other. At the same time, it did create a nice bit of angst. That said, given the scope of time we’re dealing with, these scraps of angst never developed into full blown drama bombs. Instead, they kept me interested in the shifts in the characters and their circumstances, as well as where things would be by the next holiday season.
There are some nice themes woven in. Most appropriate for a holiday story is the tradition Nick and his Misfit Toys have with a present exchange. Each year, they buy delightfully hideous ornaments and do a round-robin type exchange. These parties are usually where the various new characters are introduced. They also serve as the social interactions that cements their friendships. Despite being such quick snippets, I really got a sense for how devoted these people become to one another. Of course, there is a little side-story of how Haruto goes out of his way to get or make a special ornament for Nick every year and that is special to me because I do the same thing (obviously not for Nick, though :D). There’s a lot of inclusion in the story as well. One character is introduced at an early party as another gay man, but at a later party reveals they are a transgender woman, and enjoys the rest of the book being a successful fashion designer. Another character is an abrasive lesbian who initially got her kicks out of slamming the holiday season for its heteronormative/rape culture (yup!)/patriarchy overtones ends up eating it up when she become a mom.
Overall, this was an immensely satisfying read! The characters are vibrant and varied. I loved the concept of catching up with them once a year—it’s *almost* like getting to skip to the “good bits” but there’s substance there (as opposed to smut, but who doesn’t love a little smut? I think the most we get in this story is some snogging, but it fits the overall story well). The prose was presented in an atypical fashion that seems to describe a forest with various trees (unlike more traditional writing that feels like descriptions of trees that make up a forest…if that makes sense?). It’s a sweet holiday read for anyone.