Candace Calvert’s contemporary inspirational medical romance Step By Step is second in her Crisis Team series. It is Miss Bates’s first Calvert romance novel and won’t be her last. Whatever liking Miss Bates holds for this title, she acknowledges that the problem with inspirational fiction is its appeal to a niche market. This is problematic when Miss Bates finds an author who merits a wider audience. The dilemma remains, however, because inspie romance, even when it’s as well-written and psychologically nuanced as Calvert’s, contains elements that alienate the general reader.
Calvert’s Step By Step is a second-chance-at-love romance for two widowed protagonists. The wounds are deeper and grieving still fresh for nurse Taylor Cabot: ” … the rings had finally come off, after migrating from her left to her right hand in a painfully slow march through grief – like a turtle navigating broken glass.” Step By Step opens with Taylor and her cousin Aimee watching the San Diego Kidz Kite Festival. A private plane crashes, wreaking havoc and death on festival goers. This disaster scene is one of the “crises” that ER health care workers contend with and are heart-stoppingly described in Calvert’s novel. Taylor rushes to help, abandoning her conversation with Aimee about returning to life and love after grieving her beloved Greg for three years. The transfer of patients to San Diego Hope’s ER reunites Taylor with Seth Donovan, crisis chaplain with California Crisis Care and the man who offered Taylor friendship and compassion when she lost her husband.
Step By Step is mainly Taylor’s story, though there are two other threads involving other members of the ER team, as well as a large helping of Seth’s story. As the title suggests, Calvert’s novel is a psychologically astute portrayal of loss, grief, and healing. Taylor left Sacramento to move closer to her family, transferred to San Diego Hope, and wrote a “Survival List”. On her list are things like “lose 15 pounds”; she systematically, methodically goes about accomplishing every item. The final one, to “fall in love again,” takes the form of one ambitious, smooth-talking plastic surgeon. “Dr Face-Lift,” as Seth calls him, is not likeable, but escapes villainy, and isn’t too caricatured for being the hero’s rival. Calvert wants to show, through Taylor, how a woman whose happy, settled life was overrun by sorrow, has to cede control. Calvert doesn’t take away from Taylor’s bravery, or strength, but points to a power higher, more mysterious, and more “in control” than any list. Calvert shows this through the power of falling in love with someone who doesn’t fit the mold. For Taylor, this man is Seth Donovan.
Calvert doesn’t make Seth a super-man, an alpha of with-it-ness, knowing-ness, and sexy good looks. Actually he does have sexy good looks, but he’s also older, 40 (as Taylor is in her 30s) and has a bum knee. Seth is disorganized, takes notes on the back of Starbucks napkins, and doesn’t always say the right thing. He does, however, say the true, difficult thing. Like Taylor, he suffered a spouse’s loss. He’s stood in Taylor’s shoes, but never patronizes her with “there, there”. Seth is a character who made mistakes in his youth and paid for them: “Seth’s short fuse had brought nothing but trouble to his life. When he’d finally turned things around, he’d made a promise to do whatever he could to be a force for peace.” Seth is not idealized, as so many inspie characters are, but he is ideal – for the work he does and for Taylor. It just takes Taylor a while to realize it. Because Seth has learned the one lesson Taylor hasn’t: submission to God’s will. Miss Bates liked that, for Calvert, this doesn’t equal passivity, but a meditative consideration, a release of “control”.
Much of the depth of Calvert’s Step By Step, and the wisdom to her hero, come from her portrayal of the volunteer organization that Seth partially leads. California Crisis Care offers ” … help and hope to survivors in crisis situations”. They are, as one character articulates, “emotional paramedics,” showing up at disaster scenes, death notifications, difficult, life-altering moments in people’s lives. They have “no religious affiliation” even though “Seth knew personal faith was a strong foundation for many volunteers. They saw it as a lifeline, a rescue rope. God in control despite the chaos.” They are community-minded and respectful, without preachiness, as the best faith-based organizations are. What is most interesting about them is their philosophy of “skilled listening,” embodying a “ministry of presence”, practicing “sacred silence'”. What Miss Bates loved about this portrayal was its belief in both submission and action. The community work, the showing up to listen to victims of tragedy, is the action. The submission is the acceptance and truth-telling for the victims. As Seth says in one crisis care training scene, if you’re talking, then the victim isn’t. One of the telling aspects of Taylor’s characterization is in her decision to quit volunteering for crisis care. Seth doesn’t try to dissuade her, but understands that the work is emotionally triggering. Nor does Seth ever dissuade himself of his feelings for Taylor: he doesn’t want to be her crisis care responder, he wants her.
Miss Bates must take a moment to say that her discussion of Step By Step makes it sound stodgy when it isn’t. Seth and Taylor are three-dimensional figures with flaws and weaknesses, no matter how admirable. One of the entertaining ways the romance develops is in the hero and heroine’s humorous exchanges. Food and animals figure prominently. Here are Seth and Taylor figuring out dinner:
…. Seth said quickly, “Somewhere with real food.” “Knowing you … ” Taylor’s teasing smile raised his pulse a notch. “That means fries. Or something wrapped in pie crust.” “No.” He swiped a finger over his breast pocket. “Cross my heart, hope to pass a cholesterol test.
Their physical awareness of each other, not sexy, or erotic, is natural and lovely, two older people noting each others’ bodies: “Seth wondered why he’d never noticed the faint sprinkle of freckles across the bridge of her nose. Like cinnamon on a sugar cookie.” Seth is a gentleman; Miss Bates liked that Taylor, on the other hand, notices Seth’s muscles and messy, thick, red-streaked hair.
Calvert’s writing is smooth, polished, and crisp. She charmingly portrays the importance of pets in people’s lives, with particular pathos and sensitivity in Taylor’s dying dog. Miss Bates loved this as well as the aspects she noted above. But there are alienating elements for readers. This is a faith-based novel and the faith is evangelical Christianity. The role of ritual and free will are non-existent. The portrait of God is closer to air traffic controller than pantocrator. Miss Bates did tire of the novel’s “God’s got this,” or “God’s on it,” but her snark diminishes the painful situations depicted. Nevertheless, be warned, there’s no room for doubt in Calvert’s ethos. But it is her ethos and that of her readers and Miss Bates had to measure it against the romance’s entertaining and moving aspects and they were stronger. This might not be so for all readers. Lastly, Calvert’s Step By Step, written with such ease and maybe because of it, is a page-turner. Miss Bates finished it in a day. With Miss Austen (whose “theology” would find “crisis care” sympathetic, but might balk at God’s ability to control minutiae), Miss Bates says that Candace Calvert’s Step By Step contains “a mind lively and at ease,” Emma.
Candace Calvert’s Step By Step is published by Tyndale House. It was released on February 1st and is available in paper and e-format at your preferred vendors. Miss Bates received an e-ARC from Tyndale House Publishers, via Edelweiss.