Step-Ball-Change is a short, quiet little story about the joys of change and the challenges of family. I discovered Ray this spring when I ran across a copy of her first book, Julie and Romeo. I’ve been waiting for this one somewhat anxiously, curious to see if Ray would be able to reproduce the wonderful storytelling of her debut. I’m pleased to say she did.
On a perfectly nice evening, dance teacher Caroline McSwain and her husband, Tom, are having dinner together when the phone rings. It’s their daughter Kay crying into the phone for joy. Her very rich, socially prominent, gorgeous boyfriend has proposed. At almost the same moment, the other phone rings. This time it’s Caroline’s sister, Taffy. Her news isn’t so good. Her husband of thirty-seven years has left her for a junior executive in his company. Taffy is at her wits’ end, and, not knowing what else to do, and even though they’ve never gotten along, Caroline invites her up to Raleigh to stay for a while. Thus begins a gentle story about family, love, new beginnings, and long overdue resolutions.
This is a rather low-key story about families and how they connect and disconnect. It’s not a page-turner, but rather a slice of life. Caroline is confronting the daily conundrums of existence that aren’t perhaps as frantic as murder, rape, and pillage, but, nonetheless, are something to be concerned about. Her sister is somewhat difficult to get along with, and they have some unresolved conflicts left over from childhood. With Kay’s engagement come some revelations that leave Caroline feeling as if she’s no longer in the know, no longer her daughter’s favorite confidant. And then there’s the big society wedding that Kay’s fiancé’s family is planning. How are Caroline and Tom supposed to pay for that on the combined salaries of a retiring public defender and a dance teacher?
This may be an odd comparison, but Ray’s writing style is somewhat reminiscent of Jennifer Crusie’s. Ray writes with a subtle, situational, very community-oriented type of humor. Her characters are what Crusie’s characters might be like if they were older, mellower, and a more than a little less cynical. Quite a number of them are a delight, actually. There’s Caroline’s son, George, who seems to gracefully balance his male/female, artistic/rational sides with ease. George is charming – a law student who teaches beginning dance to five year olds. And then there’s Woodrow, the building contractor hired to do the McSwains’ Florida room who discovers their foundation is coming apart. He’s been hanging around their house for quite some time and has revealed himself to be a man of many talents – wedding consulting and recalcitrant dog training among them. Watching these two interact with the rest of the cast, and with Taffy’s yappy little terrier, was very entertaining.
Much of Women’s Fiction focuses on the experiences of young women and those with children still at home. There are plenty of Chick Lit stories about neurotic singletons and lots of books about divorced women or single mothers. There aren’t too many about women on the other end of the spectrum – the empty (or mostly empty) nesters, the semi-retired, the grandparents. Ray explored the theme of love after sixty in her charming Julie and Romeo. Here she concentrates on marriage. What makes a marriage work? How do you pick the right partner? How do you maintain a marriage? How do you build your Happily Ever After? Caroline’s thoughts on marriage, especially her own marriage, were interesting, and her happy long-term relationship was a joy to read about. There are a few small problems. There are several small secondary romances that do not fully develop. A few interesting characters could have had more page time. In fact, the whole book could have been a little longer. There were a few problems with momentum, as well, but since this is hardly an edge-of-your-seat type of story, they are a bit hard to pinpoint. Despite these flaws, the book succeeds very well because of its humor and excellent characterization.
Step-Ball-Change was a funny and touching story, the perfect way to spend a summer evening. I would definitely recommend this book to Women’s Fiction aficionados and anyone else who enjoys quirky observation humor. I will be looking forward to seeing what Ray produces next.