cover image The Christmas Letters

The Christmas Letters

Lee Smith. Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, $12.95 (128pp) ISBN 978-1-56512-156-0

It's easier to believe in Santa Claus than in the premise of Smith's holiday novella. Employing the epistolary form that she used much more successfully in Fair and Tender Ladies, Smith provides a series of letters among three generations of women, aiming to create a record of a family's joys and tragedies, as well as a slice of social history from 1944 to 1996. Unfortunately, credibility is a casualty of the device, as we are asked to believe that close relatives living in neighboring Southern states would let a year go by without even the most basic communication about births, deaths and marriages. The letters recapitulate episodes that family members would surely have heard about before (one correspondent reminds her parents at great length about how she met her husband). In the era of telephones and cameras, it is highly unlikely that the information--both intimate and picayune--contained in these detailed missives would have awaited a seasonal newsletter. Recipes passed down through the decades, beginning with boiled custard and ending with an African dish from a woman in the Peace Corps, are meant to indicate changing social mores. But nothing here can surmount the awkward format of a book that is, in fact, as bland as boiled custard. Author tour. (Oct.)