Once Upon a December by Amy Reichert
Contemporary Romance/Magical Realism
Published on October 4, 2022 by Berkley
Reviewed by Kate
Once Upon a December is a Christmas-themed romance novel with a magical twist. Astra and Jack met years ago at the Julemarked, a magical Christmas market Jack lives in, but Astra doesn’t remember. Over the years, she continues to run into Jack, but she’s married. As the book opens, she’s divorced, she meets Jack again, he tells her about the Julemarked, and they decide to date for December.
With the Kindred Spirits Supper Club, Reichert introduced a magical aspect (ghosts) into a book. With Once Upon a December, she introduces a magical Christmas market that exists only in December. For the inhabitants of the Julemarked, every month is December, and each December 1st they find themselves in a new place – sometimes in the same year as previously, sometimes in the next year. Anybody visiting the Christmas market forgets it exists after December in the real world is over (this is why Astra doesn’t remember Jack). So, Astra and Jack only have until December 24th to decide what to do – the Julemarked closes up and disappears between December 25th and December 31st, before it opens up in a new place in the world on December 1st again.
Throughout the book, there are flashbacks to Astra and Jack’s previous meetings over the course of the past 15 years, which Jack remembers all of, but Astra doesn’t. She eventually gets those memories back, but in the meantime, it feels super weird that Jack has all these memories of Astra, but Astra doesn’t remember any of the experiences. It feels uneven, that Jack has all the history, and Astra doesn’t, especially because Jack is trying to convince Astra to come and live in the Julemarked with him.
One of the reasons I have enjoyed Amy Reichert’s books in the past is the sense of place that permeates through the books- the clear love of Wisconsin and Wisconsin food has really come through in previous books I’ve read. And while that was present in Once Upon a December, I felt it significantly less than previous books. Because a lot of the book took place in the magical Christmas market, we didn’t get a Wisconsin feel, per se (though kringle like Jack and his family make in the bakery is a southeastern Wisconsin staple). Overall, I was disappointed with the lack of any specific Milwaukee kind of vibe, especially when the setting was called out in the book description.
Lastly, Astra gets pregnant during the time she spends with Jack in December. However, she doesn’t find out until after they split, Jack going with the Julemarked, and Astra staying in Milwaukee, and Astra has no way to contact Jack until the next December. In my personal opinion, a surprise pregnancy in a book that’s set in present-day Wisconsin, which post-Roe is operating under a near total abortion ban from 1849, doesn’t seem necessary. Originally, it felt like a way to force Astra and Jack together after they’d gone their separate ways. As the reader later finds out that Jack had changed his mind anyway about remaining in the Julemarked (not knowing Astra was pregnant), I don’t really feel the pregnancy was necessary in this case.
Overall, I enjoyed Once Upon a December when I was reading it. Though it may not seem this way from the review, there were parts I liked – Astra’s close female friendships, for example, or Jack’s relationship with his brothers. Astra’s ridiculous campaign to get her dog full-time from her ex-husband was an interesting addition to the story as well. However, as I have discussed in this review, there are some problematic aspects that I have a hard time overlooking and that would make me hesitant to recommend this book to many people. I think if you’re looking for something Christmasy and magical in a unique way, and you don’t think too hard about the plot, Once Upon a December can be an enjoyable read.
Content Notes: Unplanned/unexpected pregnancy