The Perfect Match
When I first started to read The Perfect Match, it seemed as though the author was going to break new ground in Christian contemporary romance. Susan May Warren initially presents readers with a professional woman holding a leadership role in a male-dominated profession along with a romance in which both hero and heroine face some real personal struggles. However, instead of being a thought-provoking and entertaining romance, Warren’s latest novel faded into a merely average read.
Ellie Karlson is the new fire chief in Deep Haven, Minnesota. As readers learn in the opening chapters, she is accustomed to going the extra mile to prove herself in a male-dominated profession. As soon as she comes to Deep Haven, she quickly learns that she has a rival within her department who wants to have her job. In addition, it quickly becomes apparent that Deep Haven is plagued by a serial arsonist, and some in the community wonder if this woman will be up to the task of stopping the fires and keeping their small town safe.
Pastor and volunteer firefighter Dan Matthews finds himself among them. On the one hand, he respects Ellie and her obvious knowledge about firefighting, but he also feels drawn to her personally. Though Ellie demands that he treat her as a colleague and a professional, Dan simply cannot stop trying to protect her, a fact that infuriates Ellie as she tries to prove herself. This leads to an elaborate dance of advance and retreat between the two as each is drawn to the other, even as they are thrown together trying to discover and stop the serial arsonist. Both fear getting involved – Ellie because she thinks it will undermine her credibility as a leader, and Dan because he’s not sure Ellie would be a viable candidate for the role of pastor’s wife.
Watching Dan and Ellie struggle with their internal conflicts is probably one of the strongest aspects of this story. Throughout the story, Ellie struggles not only with her role as fire chief, but also with her position in relation to God. Though a Christian, Ellie has not attended church regularly and seems not to be certain where she should stand with God. As the story unfolds, this inner conflict becomes tied up in her struggles as fire chief and her budding friendship/relationship with Dan.
Dan is in a similar state of inner turmoil throughout the book, both with regards to Ellie and his role as a pastor in worrying how to best reach his congregation and effectively care for their needs. These conflicts are well-drawn and watching the characters, especially Dan, work through them is quite powerful at times. Warren excels at making her points without preaching down to people. It is obvious that the author has several main messages to convey in her story, and, for the most part, she does so effectively. This is particularly true when the story is dealing with Dan’s situation as pastor because he is heroic and good without being larger than life. Dan is a likable character most of the time, and his kindness and honesty with himself and others makes him someone whom readers can respond to easily.
Ellie, however, is more difficult. While her inner conflict and her past are certainly dramatic, it is harder to empathize with her. Though Ellie is supposedly thick-skinned and accustomed to dealing with tension caused by skeptical men in her profession, she has a disturbing tendency to fly apart. In stressful situations – such as fires, believe it or not – when she is called upon to be professional, she becomes overly emotional and fails to lead her squad effectively because she is too busy dealing with her personal issues. She also has a tendency to fly off the handle when dealing with dissent in the ranks rather than leading and establishing discipline within the fire department. In addition, even though Ellie is presented a someone who is uncommonly knowledgeable about firefighting, she sometimes fails to follow basic precautions and exhibits “drama queen” behavior frequently enough to make it difficult to see her as a credible leader.
In fact, this woman as weaker, more emotional creature theme starts to wear quite thin as the book moves along. It is difficult to take Ellie seriously as someone in a position of leadership when she simply does not seem to be capable of handling conflict or stressful work situations in a professional manner. Since one of the major plotlines in this book revolves around Ellie’s struggle to prove herself within the fire department, anyone familiar with most romances from thirty years ago involving capable career women can guess what happens here. While this book has no explicit love scenes in it, the portrayal of the heroine is not exactly the sort of message you would want to pass on to your daughters as a model.
While this novel has a truly decent man as hero and features a cast of basically likable characters, it just never really flames to life. There are some moving moments, a fairly engaging suspense subplot, and worthwhile messages to be found here, but the characterization of the heroine and a frankly disappointing ending make this no more than an average read.