Lou Suffern is an extremely unlikeable man. He is self-absorbed, ruthless, arrogant and just plain nasty - to the point that, for most of the novel, I was hoping something heavy would fall on him. He treats his wife as a possession, his children as pesky flies, and his co-workers as stepping stones. Money and power are his singular goal. He schemes and connives to attain that goal at the expense of anything or anyone who steps in his path.
Then Lou meets Gabe, a homeless man begging outside Lou's office building. Lou is unexplainably drawn to show a small amount of compassion and Gabe becomes twisted into the strands of a life that Lou is desperately trying to keep from unraveling. Soon Lou sees Gabe as just one more hurdle, one more person interferring with his path to the top.
At this point, I knew that Gabe was going to be Lou's "Clarence" (the angel from "It's a Wonderful Life"). "You see, [Lou] you've really had a wonderful life. Don't you see what a waste it would be to just throw it away?" But, unlike George Bailey, Lou was such an unsympathetic character that I couldn't imagine how he could be redeemed or why anyone would care to try.
This is where the magic of Cecilia's writing comes in. The scene at Lou's father's birthday party, when Lou attempts to make amends with his family, is painful. Watching Lou as he grasps how deep the cuts of his selfishness are actually made me ache, but also made me - surprise! - sympathetic.
Even though this is billed as a Christmas story, it could take place at any time of year and be nearly as effective. The conclusion avoids the trap of holiday triteness while still delivering it's message. It left me listening for a bell to ring and Jimmy Stewart to whisper "Atta boy, [Gabe]".