Lightweight holiday fare in the entirely predictable subgenre of What Else Can Go Wrong at the Christmas Pageant?
Lamb (The Hour I First Believed, 2008, etc.) takes half the novel just to get around to Yuletide. Up until that time, he lays sometimes laborious, sometimes lighthearted groundwork at the Aloysius Gonzaga Parochial School of New London, Conn., in the fall of 1964. It seems that Sister Dymphna has had a serious emotional meltdown in front of her class, necessitating the arrival of fearsome but charismatic Madame Marguerite Frechette, a Québécoise whose gifts include directing plays—or in this case a set of tableaux vivants for the school’s Christmas production. Fifth-grader Felix Funicello is both narrator and imp of the perverse. And yes, his family is related to the renowned Annette Funicello, whose posters adorn the walls at the bus-depot lunch counter Felix’s father runs. (At one point the boy has to confess to a priest that he French-kissed the sexy poster of Annette in her How to Stuff a Wild Bikini phase.) Bad luck stalks Felix like an obstinate shadow, especially as three big events are beginning to intersect in his life: the aforementioned Christmas program, his mother’s appearance as a finalist in the Pillsbury Bake-Off (her recipe: Shepherd’s Pie Italiano) and Felix’s TV debut on The Ranger Andy Show. Readers obviously collude in the deal, for they know that nothing good will happen on any of these fronts. Sure enough, the pageant performers embarrass themselves and their parents with inappropriate off-the-cuff witticisms; Ma gets the trots during her appearance on Art Linkletter’s show (the shepherd’s pie burns); and Felix tells Ranger Andy an off-color joke that of course is carried live on local networks. Our narrator has two foils here: the egregiously obnoxious Rosalie Twerski (aka “Turdski”), who desperately wants the part of Mary in the pageant, and the exotic Zhenya Kabakova, newly arrived from Russia and suspected (by Rosalie) of being a communist.
Flimsy and barely entertaining.