What’s better than reading a book that takes place at a Christmas party in front of your very own Christmas tree? How about if that book contains a devious murder plot too? Reading a holiday book during the holidays certainly ratchets up the tension and the dark pleasure of a good winter read, which is why I devoured this book in two days. White Elephant by Trish Harnetiaux is a deliciously guilty read. It takes place over one day (with a few flashbacks for context) in Aspen, the winter playground for the rich and famous. Henry and Claudine own a real-estate/architecture business together, and Claudine is desperate to maintain her beautiful and comfortable lifestyle. Each year she organizes a famous ‘white elephant’ gift exchange that her employees are expected to participate in, but this year they are holding it in a huge mansion that their firm has up for sale, and a prospective buyer, a mega-famous pop star is joining in the party to get a better look at her future home. This stunning building has a dark past that Claudine and Henry would rather not highlight, but now that the winter storm has snowed everyone in, there’s no escaping…

I’ve participated in white elephant (sometimes known as ‘Yankee’) gift exchanges for as long as I can remember, and I’m sure you have too. It’s when everyone brings a wrapped gift to the party, and you drawn numbers to see who goes first to pick a present. You can then steal from previous pickers, etc. The majority of the exchanges I’ve gone to include a really low price limit, so many of the gifts end up being jokes. Claudine’s gift exchange is the exact opposite; the packages must be beautifully wrapped with an equally stunning item inside, worth hundreds if not thousands of dollars. And that’s what makes being on the sidelines as a reader so fun; you feel sorry for the characters who cower to Claudine’s power, yet it’s tirelessly amusing to witness it. There’s tension filling the hundreds of rooms of this house for so many reasons; pressure to sell to the celebrity visitor, pressure to keep past secrets hidden, pressure to measure up to Claudine’s enormously high expectations as a boss, even the hired bartenders can’t seem to escape her wrath as they’ve been expressly forbidden to pour Henry an alcoholic drink for the entire night. Yet everything is wrapped up in a perfect package, beautifully decorated for the Christmas season, despite the turmoil that swirls around this very important night.

Author Trish Harnetiaux,
photo credit Jude Domski

Was I able to guess what the big secret was by the end of the night? Yes, but I wasn’t right about most other things, because the amount of red herrings this book has is incredible, and I really appreciated it. I love how I was constantly redirecting my focus within the plot, sure I had figured things out but quickly corrected once the guilt was cast elsewhere. I had a vague idea of what the ending was going to look like, but there were lots of little surprises along the way. This book has been compared to the movie Clue (because they’re both about people trapped in a mansion) and Big Little Lies (because everyone is attractive and wealthy with secrets) but these comparisons don’t do the book justice. White Elephant is a perfect combination of fun and creepy, which is why I genuinely enjoyed reading it. The importance of this cannot go unstated; sometimes we need to read books just for the fun of it. Plus, this novel is relatable; don’t we all feel like stabbing someone else during the holidays at one point or another?

At just under 230 pages, this book was a quick and surprisingly funny read! I won’t forget the character of Claudine for awhile. Although she’s not a good person, she’s by far the most memorable. A perfect quote to sum her up, and the book:

“Sorry we were almost late, Claudine,” Jerry said, handing her a garish poinsettia. “The car got stuck in our driveway.” “This is beautiful,” she said, handing the plant off to a nearby Jules and whispering “Get rid of it.”

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