A Novel Concept

Wishin’ and Hopin’ for a Better Kid-at-Christmas Novel

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By Michael Malone

Wishin and HopinIt being that time of year and all, “Wishin’ and Hopin’” is a Christmas novel from Wally Lamb. It’s not a Christmas book the way “A Christmas Story” is a Christmas book. It is more like a Christmas book the way “Die Hard” is a Christmas movie; both offer a smattering of holiday stuff, and lots of other stuff that could happen in September or May.

Felix Funicello is a 10-year-old in Connecticut. As his name may suggest, for people of a certain age, Felix is related to movie star Annette Funicello. It is 1964 and everyone loves Annette, who got her start in the Mickey Mouse Club before breaking out as a singer and actress. Her movies include “Beach Party,” “Muscle Beach Party,” “Bikini Beach” and a few others that don’t have Beach in the name.

Everyone in Felix’s town adores Annette. Including him. Her posters are all over the family’s lunch counter in the New London train station. At one point, Felix makes out with two-dimensional Annette in one of the posters, then has to confess his misdeed to one of the priests at his Catholic school.

Early in the novel, Felix’s mother is invited to the Pillsbury Bake-Off that will shoot as part of the program “Art Linkletter’s House Party” in Beverly Hills. Two representatives from every U.S. state are invited. Everyone in New London is excited about the local lady venturing to glamorous Southern California to be on TV, and the Funicello lunch counter is jammed with people watching.

Ronald Reagan is a host of Pillsbury Bake-Off, but when he meanders over to Marie Funicello’s station to check out her Shepherd’s Pie Italiano, she’s nowhere to be found. The Nutmeggers wonder what happened to her, but her husband knows.

“Jesus Christ and Jiminy Cricket!” Pop howls to the full diner. Marie’s got the trots! Same as she always does when she’s a nervous wreck!”

Just as Marie came running back to the set, Reagan was on to the next state’s reps in the Bake-Off.

“So let’s see what’s cookin’ down in Louisiana! Mimi’s Mumbo Jumbo Gumbo! Now that sounds pretty darn delicious, doesn’t it?” said Reagan.

Halfway through “Wishin’ and Hopin’” the book turns into a Christmas yarn. Felix’s teacher, a French Canadian known as Madame Frechette, is directing the “tableau vivant,” her term for the school’s Christmas pageant.

There’s a nice build-up to the pageant, and some funny stuff happens when it finally goes down. Felix is the smallest kid in his class. When two girls fight over the doll that will stand in for the baby Jesus, they destroy the toy, and Felix must slide into the manger. Pauline, a girl who simply cannot say no to snacks, be they donuts or Fritos, is cast as the Virgin Mary, but then overdoses on Hostess Sno-Balls backstage and cannot muster the strength to step onstage.

Without much time to switch actors, Madame Frechette gets a girl in Felix’s class, an outlandish Russian immigrant named Zhenya, to sub as Mary. She must then swap outfits with a boy named Franz, him taking her burlap sack, her taking his fat aunt’s nightgown, as their classmates watch.

“C’mon, beeg boyzy,” said Zhenya. “Ticher wants h’us to sweetch, we sweetch.”

Getting its title from a Dusty Springfield song, “Wishin’ and Hopin’” ends in a Chinese restaurant, just like “A Christmas Story.”

“We get in the car – Ma, my sisters, and me – and drive to Easterly,” Lamb writes. “Along the way, I count the number of houses that are decorated with Christmas lights. That song by the Chipmunks, and ‘White Christmas’ and ‘Jingle Bell Rock’ play on the car radio.”

Pop is already at China Village, nursing a Rheingold.

Felix finds out a special guest was seated with his father at the Christmas pageant, and that guest is, in fact, joining the Funicellos for dinner.

It’s a short, fast, mostly fun book. I enjoyed the Zhenya character – her mangled English, her knack for baseball, her bravery in her new nation.

But there’s not a whole lot at stake in the novel. I never read “A Christmas Story,” but I’ve seen the movie 812 times. Ralphie desperately needs the Red Ryder range model air rifle, ya know, the one with a compass in the stock and this thing that tells time. Christmas will be a bust if he doesn’t get it.

Felix? His life is just fine. Loving parents, no health issues, no bullies. He does not shoot his eye out. There’s not a whole lot to get the reader invested.

Some 17,000 readers gave the book a 3.59 out of 5 on GoodReads.

“Flimsy and barely entertaining,” said Kirkus Reviews.

“A charming read with a genuinely funny ending,” countered the Houston Chronicle.

As I googled the book moments ago to find the reviews, I was shocked to see there was a “Wishin’ and Hopin’” movie that came out in 2014. Molly Ringwald played the teacher and Chevy Chase played a grown-up Felix, presumably narrating the story of his childhood. Not a single critic review appears on Rotten Tomatoes. There is no “Wishin’ and Hopin’” marathon on TBS come Christmas Eve.

I picked the book up over the summer, at a dinky used bookshop in Cape Cod that’s part of a church. I grabbed it because I like Wally Lamb, and thoroughly enjoyed his novels “She’s Come Undone” and “I Know This Much is True,” which I read a long, long time ago, and don’t remember, but do recall digging them.

“Wishin’ and Hopin’” felt like Lamb saw the success of, yes, “A Christmas Story” and wanted to see if he could score with a kid-at-Christmas book as well. The Kirkus writeup added, “Lightweight holiday fare in the entirely predictable subgenre of What Else Can Go Wrong at the Christmas Pageant?”

That’s a pretty fair assessment.

Journalist Michael Malone lives in Hawthorne with his wife and two children. 


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