True to my prediction, I took a small break between the gargantuan novels awaiting my attention (just finished Addie LaRue at 442 pages, and embarking next on Troubled Blood,
at 944!) to read a small but delightful Christmas story. I knew that Connie Willis collected such stories, having come across a comprehensive list she made some years ago of all her can’t-miss favorites, but I didn’t know she had written one,
Take a Look at the Five and Ten is pure nostalgia in its subject matter while being scientific in its methodology. It adopts the premise of her book Passage, wherein a neuroscientist is conducting research on a particular aspect of memory. In that book it’s all about dreams, while in this one the topic is the TFBM: Traumatic Flashbulb Moment. A Ph.D. student, Lassiter, is doing a study of people who have experienced one of these; imagine his delight when he meets a new and potentially perfect subject at Christmas dinner with his new girlfriend’s family.
Ori begins dreading each year’s holiday season (Thanksgiving to New Year’s Day) in July. Her one-time stepfather, Dave, never lets go of the people from his past, so even though he’s working on his sixth marriage (his union with Ori’s mom ended when she was eight years old)), he never forgets to include in his celebratory invitations the in-laws he collected along the way, including Ori, Aunt Mildred (the great-aunt of his second wife), and Grandma Elving (the grandmother of his fourth). Dave’s latest bride, Jillian, cooks elaborately awful trendy food, and invites her snotty daughter Sloane, along with Sloane’s current boyfriend and her own stuck-up friends, and they all, with the exception of Grandma Elving, treat Ori as if she is a combination of charity case and the hired help.
Grandma Elving presents her own trying behavior, as she insists on telling the same story each year of how she worked at F. W. Woolworth’s “five and dime” store in downtown Denver one Christmas in the 1950s. Everyone else in the family is fed up to the gills with hearing it, but Sloane’s new boyfriend is fascinated by Grandma’s extraordinary ability to remember each and every vivid detail about her experiences at Woolworth’s, since clarity and consistency of a particular memory are hallmarks of a TFBM. Lassiter invites Grandma to be one of his test subjects, and the two of them elicit assistance from Ori to get Grandma to and from her appointments at the clinic where Lassiter is conducting the experiment. Ori quickly begins to have what she knows are ill-fated feelings for Lassiter as their proximity grows….
This is a cute and humorous Christmas tale reminiscent of the French farce-like quality of Willis’s time-travel book, To Say Nothing of the Dog. It’s short (140 pages), qualifying more as a novella than a full-length book, and you can get it for Kindle too, so if you’re trying to hit your 2020 Goodreads Challenge quota, it’s a quick read that counts. But best of all, it’s an unconventional Christmas story that will give you even more appreciation for Willis’s whimsy and heart.