After splitting up, a couple each bring their new significant other to Happy Forest Holiday Park in an attempt to give their daughter a "normal" family Christmas which turns into a powder keg fueled by drinking too much and oversharing.
Caroline Hulse spends most of her days writing, having fulfilled her dream of having a job she could do in pajamas. She also works in human resources sometimes. She is openly competitive and loves playing board and card games. She can often be found in casino poker rooms. She lives with her husband in Manchester, England.
Exes with their new partners getting together for Christmas with a child? Not a good idea, as is clear from the start: one of the adults has shot another with an arrow. Matt explains to girlfriend Alex, whose home he shares, why he wants to organize the problematic get-together-a "holiday weekend" (actually five days) at Happy Forest Park so he can spend Christmas with his seven-year-old daughter, Scarlett, who lives with his ex-wife, Claire, and her boyfriend, Patrick. (Scarlett's imaginary friend, Posey, a large purple rabbit based on a stuffed toy she once loved and lost, comes along, too.) The cracks in the plan become apparent early: Patrick spots a former classmate and manipulates being close to her, Alex discovers Matt has been less than honest about the breakup of his marriage, and Scarlett and Posey fear that because Alex is a scientist, she likes to kill animals. The adults' deteriorating relationships are interspersed with police interviews and excerpts from Happy Forest brochures as the narrative gradually reveals who shot whom under what circumstances. An entertaining, tongue-in-cheek tale of people who are the adults, after all. Copyright 2018 Booklist Reviews.
A very bad idea for a holiday vacation turns out even worse than expected for a bunch of Brits. Claire, a bouncy, put-together blonde, and Matt, a lovable slacker and committed pothead, haven't both gotten to spend Christmas with their daughter, Scarlett, since they divorced. (Funny how that happens.) Somehow they come up with the brilliant idea of dragging their new live-in partners to a ticky-tacky "holiday park" called Happy Forest—"Our carefully planned world is your oyster"—for a shared vacation. Claire is now with Patrick, an uptight, insecure, self-centered bore. Matt is now with Alex, a nerdy but rather sweet laboratory scientist. Scarlett, 7, the beloved offspring, also brings someone along—her giant, paranoid, imaginary rabbit friend, Posey. This recipe for disaster begins with the transcript of a 999 call, the British equivalent of 911: "Woman: Get them to hurry. There's so much blood. Operator: When you say he's been shot, what has he been shot b y? What can you see? Woman: An arrow. An archery arrow." We then follow both the progress of the vacation from Day 1 and the transcripts of various police interviews conducted after the incident as we amble toward the revelation of who shot whom and what's going to happen after these poor people get out of Happy Forest. The best takeaway from this book is in the form of new entries for your British slang dictionary, particularly the evocative "bell end." Hulse, in her U.S. debut, manages to insert the full Google definition in the text, exactly the one we had just looked up on our phone. A bit too heavily staged, but with good dialogue and some nice farcical moments. Copyright Kirkus 2018 Kirkus/BPI Communications. All rights reserved.
Matt had known about the trip for months before he dropped it into conversation.
Matt didn't deliberately keep things from Alex; he just dealt with complicated thoughts like he dealt with his post.
When letters landed in the hallway, Matt stepped over them or, when they could no longer be ignored, crammed them into any nook he could find. Next to the cooker, on the bookshelf; the letters went anywhere that was easy-reach and tucked away and-most important-had no established retrieval system.
Hence, Matt absolved himself from any sense of urgency and, if the sender tried to contact him again, Matt seemed (and, Alex came to realize, actually was) genuinely surprised the issue hadn't just gone away.
Within weeks of Matt moving in, Alex had piles of envelopes in places in her house where there had never been piles before.
After the first few times she spent pulling envelopes out of what had once been-unappreciated at the time-empty nooks, Alex gathered the letters all together one afternoon. She laid them out in a Hansel-and-Gretel trail from the front door to the kitchen table.
Matt came to find her in the bedroom, cradling the letters in his arms. "All this post is mine, Al? Really?"
"I thought I'd put the letters in one place. Make it easy for you."
Matt shrugged, the letters lifting with him. "I don't get the point of post. Who do they expect to read post nowadays?"
Weeks later, the nooks had filled up again.
The night Matt told her about the trip, Alex had made a pie-everything from scratch. Except the pastry: Alex wasn't made of time. At the age of thirty-seven, she still felt like whenever she cooked an actual meal, it was a notable event: that she deserved some kind of award for not just pouring milk onto cereal.
Alex was washing up after tea when Matt came to find her. He loitered in the doorway, like it had occurred to him to come downstairs on a whim and he hadn't yet decided whether he was staying.
"So. You know what I said about Claire's idea for Christmas?"
Alex glanced round. "No."
He widened his eyes. "I definitely haven't mentioned it?"
"You definitely haven't."
Matt blew his dark fringe out of his eyes, as he did twenty times each day. His hairline was impressively youthful for thirty-eight and Alex suspected he might have cultivated the habit to accentuate it. He might have, he might not. Alex meant to ask someone who'd known him longer. Not that it mattered-but Alex was a scientist. Once she'd developed a hypothesis, she wanted to test it. Alex liked her facts clean, boxed.
"God, I'm useless, Al."
Alex peered at the glass in her hand, checking for soapsuds so she didn't have to reply.
Matt stayed in the doorway behind her, but reached out to stroke her arm. "I suppose I didn't know how to bring it up. I thought you might get mad."
Noting the seamless change of approach from "I thought I'd mentioned it" to "I didn't know how to bring it up," Alex unpeeled her washing-up gloves and flopped them over the drainer. She turned to face Matt. "Am I about to get mad?"
Matt gestured for her to step toward him. He put his arms around her waist. "Understandably mad, of course." He kissed her forehead. "Completely justifiably mad. Not crazy psycho mad."
This did not bode well. "Go on."
"So you know I haven't spent Christmas with Scarlett since Claire and I split up."
Alex nodded. "Have we got Scarlett this year? I'd like that."
"No, it's . . . ?Claire wants us to go on a weekend away together."
Alex took a beat to process this. "Us?"
"Us. All of us. You and me. Her and Patrick. With Scarlett as the guest of honor."
Alex stared at Matt. She gestured toward the kitchen table. This was not the kind of conversation Alex wanted to be having with someone who was standing in a doorway. She didn't want to be having this conversation at all, but if she was going to have to do so, it would be with someone who was actually in the same room as her.
"At the Happy Forest holiday park in North Yorkshire." Matt leaned on the back of a chair, palms down, like he was too excited to sit. "They pull out all the stops at Christmas, festive magic everywhere. Light-up reindeers and fake snow. Santa's elves wander round the forest singing carols."
Alex glanced at the wine rack but made herself look away. She refused to get annoyed. Annoyance led to irrationality, and irrationality was a personal-and professional-failure.
She lowered herself into a kitchen chair; it creaked. "This Christmas? You mean one month's time Christmas?"
Matt sank into the chair next to Alex. He leaned forward and picked up one of her spotty-socked feet and placed it on his knee. "We've talked about it before, haven't we?" He stroked her foot. "How magical it would be for Scarlett to spend Christmas with both me and Claire."
"But we didn't discuss it in that way. Not like we were really going to do it."
Matt looked down at her foot. "But what other way is there?"
"We were just being smug about how grown-up and classy we are. It wasn't a serious conversation."
"It was to me."
Alex felt a softening in her chest. Lovely Matt, who thought this kind of thing was a good idea. Who had accepted he would never be a superstar DJ, two years off his fortieth birthday. Who had recently bought a skateboard again, and who was planning to build a half-pipe in the garden-a prospect Alex hadn't even objected to, knowing there was no chance he would ever get round to it.
Who thought stroking Alex's socked foot would make this conversation easier.
Alex looked down at her lap. "Or maybe we meant go for a meal sometime. I'm sure no one meant a holiday." She flicked one fingernail against another. "Claire can't possibly think it's a good idea. She's a sensible woman."
"She says we all get on fine. She likes you."
"I like her too," Alex said in a rush. She tried to get those words in first, when possible. "Did you tell her I'd agreed?"
Matt appeared to concentrate hard on Alex's foot. He tipped his head forward; his fringe followed.
Curtains, Alex thought. That's what they used to call that haircut in the early nineties. When it was worn by more age- and era-appropriate people.
"I thought I'd mentioned it, I'm sorry. But we can still make an excuse. Workload. Family clash." Matt lifted his head in a question. "Dead grandparent?"
"I'm trying to understand if you've told her I'd agreed."
Matt gave an oops smile.
"What does Patrick think about not getting to spend Christmas in Nottingham? Won't he want to be near his own kids?"
"They're teenagers. Claire said they never want to see him anyway."
Alex took a deep breath. "So. Is the trip actually booked?"
"I'm sure we could get a refund. But you know Claire, she's just so organized. Once she's got an idea in her head, that's it." Matt shook his head tolerantly. "She's probably packed her case already."
Alex pressed her lips together. "Do other people do this? Go on holiday with their exes and their new partners?"
Matt shrugged. "Does it matter?"
"If we pull out now, I'll be the bad guy."
"I'm not going to drag you there by the hair, Al." Matt lifted her foot up and placed it down on the floor with a pat, as if dismissing an eager pet. "If you really don't want to go, we won't go." He paused. "I wouldn't want to go without you-that would be weird."
"But you always said if you'd met Claire in a different way you might be mates."
I did, Alex reflected. I said that. But it wasn't fair of Matt to quote her out of context. Mixing up real, solid conversations and fluffy-cloud, Vaseline-on-the-lens conversations.
Matt put his hands on the table. "I just don't want to miss another Christmas with Scarlett. She's seven, Al. She was four the last time I watched her open her stocking."
"Scarlett comes first, of course. But can't we just have her here one year?"
"Claire's her mum. I can't take Scarlett away from her at Christmas. It's not right."
Alex closed her eyes. That was Matt all over, in one illogical sentence. So irritatingly respectful and chivalrous.
She opened her eyes and saw the washing-up in the sink. Perhaps not always that chivalrous. But about this kind of thing, he was chivalrous. About what felt, tonight, like exactly the wrong kind of thing.
Alex watched Matt carefully. "Are you sure you've thought it through?"
He gave his mouth a side-twist of thought. "What's to think through?"
"Oh, I don't know. There's nothing complicated? At all? Nothing that might be awkward?"
"Why would there be?"
Alex looked out of the window. In her garden, the security light flickered, flashing her garden into focus in strobelike images.
Flash. Grimy washing line. Flash. Rusty garden chair with the wonky leg. Flash. Tiger-in-a-cape hand puppet strewn across the gravel, the cloth sodden and aged with dirt, left over from a friend's visit with her baby.
Alex turned back to Matt. She'd always been determined not to infantilize her boyfriend like so many of her friends did, treating their partners like the cack-handed get-nothing-right males who flailed through TV adverts for household products. But he didn't make it easy for her sometimes. She hated it when he pushed her into this position: making her into the wife from TV adverts, her hands on her aproned hips, lecturing him about brands of paper towels.
Alex leaned forward in her chair, maintaining eye contact. "How do you feel-really feel-about spending Christmas with your ex?"
"These things are only complicated if you make them that way, Al. It's all in the mind."
"No lingering emotion or resentment?"
Matt put his head to one side. "I don't think so."
"Nothing, however small, left unsaid? Your history's all empty and wipe-clean? The needle's back on the start of the record and everything's peachy?"
Matt sat back in his chair.
"I'm just thinking of you," Alex added. "A lot of people would find the situation hard."
Me, she thought. I'd find it hard.
Matt took a while, visibly giving it some thought. "I don't dislike Claire. I don't love her and I don't hate her," he said eventually. "She's just . . . ?Scarlett's mum now. And we have to find a way to make it work, because she'll always be Scarlett's mum."
"Of course." Alex jiggled her leg against the table. "And Patrick? You want to spend a weekend with him?"
"I'm sure he's fine."
Alex leaned forward. "He doesn't have 'a black hole of an anti-personality'?"
"I was being flippant. Claire likes him anyway, and she always had good taste in men." Matt glanced at Alex's face and held his palms up in response. "OK, not today. Sorry, Al. Not funny today."
He stood up. "I'll leave you to ponder. I know whatever you decide will be the right thing. Just give me a shout when you're ready."
He scurried upstairs, leaving Alex with the washing-up.
Alex emptied the lukewarm water out of the sink and refilled the bowl.
The water was too hot but she didn't add any cold to the mix. The discomfort of her sweating hands was preferable to the more nebulous discomfort going on in her stomach.
Alex wished she was at work right now. It was easier to forget in the university lab, where there were readings to take and cells to study. In the lab, Alex could go hours before she raised her head and looked out of the window at the trees. Only then did she look down at her trainers on the scuffed floor, take in the sound of the tinny radio, and remember there was a world other than studying cells taken from diabetes patients.
But it was different at home. At home, it was just Alex and her thoughts.
She could refuse to go on the trip, of course. But that wasn't satisfactory either.
She didn't want to go-but she couldn't not go either. She'd feel petty and churlish, which she definitely, actively-explicitly-wasn't. Alex had always been very reasonable about the fact Matt got on with his ex, a fact that other people-people who were actually churlish-would have found difficult.
Alex had overcompensated, if anything. Kissed Claire on the cheek on the occasions they did the Scarlett drop-off swap. Always had something nice to say about Claire's skirt, or her hair. Everyone had a past and nothing was personal. And Alex wasn't a personal person.
Alex scrubbed at the burnt pastry on the rim of the pie tin.
Though it was only a month away, Alex hadn't given much thought to the logistics of Christmas Day. She'd thought she'd see her parents, maybe, or see Matt's-it didn't matter. Alex didn't care about Christmas. It was just a day when the lab was shut.
But this-this was different.
And Matt had known for ages and not told her.
Alex didn't understand how he did it. Was he able to mentally compartmentalize awkward news? Or was he just putting off the inevitable?
Alex couldn't test either hypothesis, which made the situation even more frustrating. Matt had an amazing ability to wrong-foot her, and she ended up agreeing to things she hadn't meant to. Maybe this was why Matt did well in his job in sales, despite having what Alex considered a questionable work ethic.
Alex rinsed a plate; she stacked it on the drainer. She heard a scraping sound upstairs: a chair being dragged across the floor.
Matt was giving her some space. Ostensibly, busy upstairs. In reality, he was just staying out of her way.
After washing up, Alex looked through the online pictures of what she now thought of as the enchanted forest.
Not that it looked enchanted in the pictures. There might have been year-round fairy lights to go with the seasonal fake snow, but there were too many plastic barriers and warning signs for the place to look like a proper woodland wonderland.
Alex pushed her laptop away. She tried again not to look at the wine rack.
Don't be silly, she'd said, when Matt suggested getting rid of all the alcohol at home. We can't be the people everyone avoids because there's no booze in the house. But some nights she felt more of a pull from the retained wine rack than others. Like tonight. The wine's subtle pressure was multiplied by the jagged weight of a conversation unfinished.
Matt would be expecting her to talk about his suggestion tonight. Though he'd avoided the conversation for weeks, he would expect her to be decisive. They'd had an unspoken agreement in the two years they'd been together that bringing things to conclusion was Alex's role in their relationship.