I don’t normally read holiday-themed books, but when my online friend Pam said she’d enjoyed Wally Lamb’s Wishin’ and Hopin’: A Christmas Story, it seemed to me like the perfect book to read the week before Christmas. I enjoyed this light-hearted, fun, coming-of-age story very much….and it was perfect reading for a busy holiday week.
The slim novel is narrated by Felix Funicello (a distant cousin of Annette!) and tells the story of his fifth grade year at St. Aloysius Gonzaga Parochial School in 1965 in a small town in CT. He navigates the nuns at school, his pretty new substitute teacher from Quebec, his know-it-all classmate Rosalie, and the requisite Christmas pageant. Felix’s family owns the lunch counter at the local bus station, and Felix is trying to figure out what French kissing is and how to keep his best friend out of trouble. Here’s a sample from the beginning of the novel:
Lyndon Johnson was president back then, Cassius Clay was the heavyweight champ, and John, Paul, George, and Ringo were newly famous. Our family had a claim to fame, too. Well, two claims actually. No, three. My mother had recently been notified that her recipe, “Shepherd’s Pie Italiano,” had catapulted her into the finals of that year’s Pillsbury Bake-Off in the “main meal” category and she was going to be on television. I was going to be on TV, too – a guest, along with my fellow Junior Midshipmen on a local program, Channel 3’s The Ranger Andy Show. So there were those two things, plus the fact that our third cousin on my father’s side was a celebrity.
(I loved this reference to the local Ranger Andy Show. Where I grew up in Rochester, NY, our local kids’ talent show was The Skipper Sam Show, and my best friend Michelle appeared on it with her dance class!)
The setting and the 60’s pop culture references are lots of fun, and Felix tells his story with warmth and humor. I smiled through most of the book, laughed out loud quite a bit, and really came to care about Felix and his family. All of the details of school, family life, and the 60’s bring the novel and the characters to life, in Lamb’s signature style. Certainly, this is a different kind of book than Lamb’s other novels – light-hearted and fun without any serious topics delved into – but it was enjoyable and just right for the season. You don't have to wait until next December to read it, though. Although the book ends with the much-anticipated Christmas pageant, this nostalgic novel would be fun to read any time of the year.