by Jeanne Ray, contemporary (2002)
Shaye Areheart, $22.95, ISBN 0-609-61003-1

In a perfect world, books like Jeanne Ray's Step-Ball-Change will be published under "Romance". I will be able tell people, "See? This is what I love to read. A story all about love, family, and communication. That's what you all are missing out on." But no. This book is "Woman's Fiction", as if "Woman's Fiction" is something that is different or a step-up from "Romance". "Romance" seems to be exclusively reserved for small town, neurotic virgins getting screwed by city boy millionaires turned prodigal sons or neurotic city Daddy's girls getting screwed by the man their Daddy hired to take care of them.

Sorry, I don't mean to use this book to push forward any radical notions of mine, but seriously, if you're tired of small town virgin/caregiver/martyr heroines shoved into some formulaic rescue fantasy in too many of today's contemporary romances, run, don't walk, run to your nearest library or bookstore and read this book. It didn't change my life, but in a few hours of reading Step-Ball-Change, I was in love.

Our heroine Carolina "Caroline" McSwain is 62, happily married to a tireless PD Tom who just doesn't know when to retire, and they are happy. They aren't rich, their house is in danger of collapsing and the repairs are taking forever to finish, but hey, life is okay. Then one day, her daughter Kay announces that she's marrying Trey Bennett, of the blue-blood Bennetts, and Caroline and Tom are stupefied. Is it wrong on your daughter's happiest day to shudder at the thought of Trey's bright, bright teeth or endless attending of right-wing fundraising parties? At the same time, Henrietta or Taffy, Caroline's sister, calls. Taffy's husband is dumping her and she is coming over for some boo-hoo. Never mind that Taffy and Caroline aren't what you'll call close sisters.

But that's nothing compared to the fact that the Bennetts are bringing on 1,000 wedding guests and the McSwains are expected to foot half the bill. Witness protection program suddenly seems like a salvation cruise.

This is a wedding preparation story, yes, and it's set in the land of evil ya-yas, but this story is as far from ya-ya's as you can get. Rich with gentle, often whimsical humor and generously laden with sensitive poetry about family, love, and all, this book is the episode of Gilmore Girls that Amy Sherman-Palladino never wrote, the missing episode of Once And Again, and proof that people over 60 can still be cool and wise, although not too wise.

Maybe Caroline can explain this story better:

And so it was dinner for seven: Taffy, my sister, whose husband had left her; Kay, my daughter, who was marrying Trey Bennett; Jack from the D.A.'s office, who was sleeping with Kay; George, my son, who brought Jack over to torment Kay; Woodrow, the widowed contractor who was trying to save our house; Tom, my husband, who had two puncture wounds in his right calf from my sister's dog, Stamp, who was tied beneath the table; and me. Seven.

I love Caroline and Tom. They are still in love after all these years, and their love is one of the most real elements in this story. Ms Ray deals with this aspect with deft humor and sensitivity, but she doesn't shy away from the darker sides of long-term relationships. At one point, Tom wonders whether Caroline had ever thought about divorcing him. The answer, by the way, is yes. Yet through the ups and downs, they are still in this thick and thin, and I love them both for it.

I can argue that this is actually Tom and Caroline's story, of how their daughter's upcoming nuptials and her bridal jitters only reaffirm their love for each other. But that doesn't do justice to the color Ms Ray liberally sprinkles in her story: George, the good-natured dancer and lawyer who falls in love with Woodrow's daughter Erica (a nice touch - she's African-American); Taffy, the sister who is lost without her husband (her relationship with Caroline is another wonderfully done aspect of this story), Tom's bias against corporate lawyers and DAs, and Caroline's passion for dancing that has her teaching dance long after her bones start to protest (Step-Ball-Change comes from a dance thing, and while I'm clueless when it comes to dance, Caroline's love for dance comes alive to me like every other part of her personality), and too many other things.

I'm not too keen on Woodrow though. He is the African-American Marty Sue who can do everything lovely extensions from building to training dogs and giving sage wedding preparation tips to romancing Taffy out of her blues with his wise and sage advice. This is a rather condescending characterization of African-Americans, right up there with the loyal free Southern slave who always have a word of wisdom for our spoiled Scarlet O'Hara. Chris Rock did a dead-on parody of this type of thing, although I will not type the name of his "Magic Solve-It-All Black Guy" character in his parody here.

I'm also not keen on the McSwines' willingness to bankrupt themselves for the sake of Kay's wedding. Seriously, if me and hubby have $375,000 to spend on a wedding, you will see us spending that money on ourselves. A mansion in an island, that kind of thing. If the kids want us to pay that much for their wedding, we'll suggest that they elope and send us a postcard and that tacky Elvis fake-rhinestone jacket from Las Vegas that my hubby always wanted. Wait, forget that jacket.

Still, whatever its faults are, Step-Ball-Change seems to have it all: heartwarming moments, sensitive loving exchanges, poignant heart-to-heart talks, dry wit, and a happy ending of all happy endings. How can I resist a book who defines love in this way?

Maybe love was in the ground, a colorless, odorless gas that lived in the bedrock and every now and then managed to dislodge itself from the earth and seep up through the soil, through the basement and the floorboards to fill up the house. Maybe we were infected, intoxicated, a whole house held under the invisible sway of love we could not see. Or maybe love was a virus that one person brought in from the cold, and then it passed from person to person until suddenly everyone was swaying to the low, jazzy beat they didn't know they heard. I should put a sign on the door that said WARNING! MARRIAGE WITHIN! ENTER AT YOUR OWN RISK.

Or maybe I should put a sign on the door that said COME INSIDE.

Rating: 95

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