This brief but entertaining novel proves that Jeanne Ray’s surprise best-selling debut, Julie and Romeo, was no fluke. The author has a deft comic touch and an Elizabeth Berg-type talent for catching the small but critical moments in life and relationships. While less romantic than Ray’s debut, Step-Ball-Change broadens the focus to explore numerous familial bonds with gentle humor and compassion.
If you’ve ever had one of those days when everything happens at once, you’ll appreciate the mess that begins one Tuesday night when 62-year-old Caroline McSwain is enjoying the rare treat of a quiet dinner with her husband, Tom, a busy public defender. First her daughter Kay calls, almost incoherent with emotion, announcing that she has just become engaged to her boyfriend Trey, scion of Raleigh’s most prominent family. Almost simultaneously, the other line rings. It’s Caroline’s sister Taffy, devastated because her husband has just left her for the proverbial younger woman. Although the two sisters have never been close, Taffy gratefully accepts Caroline’s offer to come to Raleigh for an extended visit.
Taffy’s arrival adds to a household literally in chaos. Caroline and Tom’s contractor, Woodrow, spends so much time shoring up the house’s crumbling foundation that he has become a de facto member of the family. Kay’s good news is tempered by the inability of the McSwains to foot the bill for an enormous society wedding, and by Kay’s lingering attachment to an old flame. Taffy contributes to the confusion by adding a small but dangerous wire-haired terrier named Stamp who is in desperate need of discipline.
Fortunately, Caroline has a sanctuary. At her dance studio, McSwann’s, she teaches little girls how to step-ball-change, shuffle off to Buffalo, and perform other steps of varying complexity. Dancing has always been her solace - and surprisingly, it may also be the path to reconciliation for Caroline and Taffy.
Jeanne Ray writes about vibrant 60 year old women, and greatly reduces my dread of reaching that point in the not-too-distant future. Caroline is a smart, loving and funny heroine without a “doddering” bone in her body. She teaches, dances, worries about her children, and passionately kisses her husband with few regrets about growing older. Her marriage of 42 years has survived a few shaky periods, but the bond is still very strong. As they face the impossible task of hosting a six-figure wedding for their daughter, Caroline can honestly tell Tom that she has never felt closer to another human being in her life. Connection and communication despite tremendous stress - now that’s a marriage worth emulating.
The relationship between Caroline and Taffy also rings true. Moving in opposite directions since childhood, the sisters have maintained a cordial but distant relationship for their entire lives. While Caroline is down-to-earth and artsy, Taffy is wealthy, polished and a bit snooty. But as they help each other cope with their respective crises, they bond over dance steps, and realize that their differences are far from insurmountable.
Ray’s humor evolves naturally from the situations the characters find themselves in. Unlike so many screwball comedies, the laughs never feel forced. Much of the novel takes place in Caroline’s increasingly crowded home (the guest list grows as the story progresses), giving it the feel of a well-plotted English drawing-room comedy. There are multiple happy endings, a variety of interesting couples and a few surprises thrown in for good measure.
My only caveat about Step-Ball-Change is its abbreviated length. At 226 pages, it can easily be finished in one evening and may be better suited for a library loan than a bookstore purchase. Then again, you just might want to buy the novel so you can read it any time you need a book with a warm, optimistic heart.