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by Earlene Fowler
Berkley Prime Crime, April 2002
308 pages
ISBN: 0425184349

Benni Harper is one busy woman. Her best friend, Elivia Aragon, is marrying Benni's cousin, Emory. Her 77-year-old grandmother, Dove, is marrying world-renowned photographer Issac Lyons. The weddings will take place only days apart, and Benni is matron-of-honor for both women. One would think she had enough on her plate what with having to arrange two very different wedding showers while moving into a new house with police chief husband Gabe and preparing for the town's annual Mardi Gras. But when Edna McClun asks her to catalog the contents of some old trunks for the San Celina Historical Society, Benni willingly agrees to doing the job.

Why, you may ask, is Benni so eager to take on extra work? The answer to that question lies in the history of the two old trunks, or more precisely, the history of the trunks' owner. Maple Bennett was a simple working girl from Kentucky when she fell in love with San Celina socialite Garvey Sullivan and married him in 1942. No one knows what went wrong with the marriage, but when Garvey was found shot to death in the attic of his home three years later, and Maple ran off with Garvey's best friend, most of the folks in town were positive she'd killed him.

Benni is not willing to condemn Maple Sullivan without knowing the facts of the case. She pursues every lead she can think of from old newspaper accounts of the death to interviews with the policeman in charge of the investigation. Her doubts multiply when she finds Maple's diary and reads the woman's loving accounts of life with Garvey Sullivan.

Benni's feelings towards Maple are swayed by her own emotional problems with Gabe. Her husband's ex-police partner has suddenly shown up in town. A woman of many charms, Del was the cause of Gabe's first divorce and seems bent on seducing him again. For his part, Gabe seems unable to resist replaying his past. Angry and hurt, Benni walks out on Gabe and buries her troubles in work.

Earlene Fowler digs deep into the emotional ramifications of marriage and divorce in her ninth book in the Benni Harper series. One cannot help but sympathize with Benni as, for no fault of her own, her life changes virtually overnight. Her anger and feelings of betrayal become the reader's own emotions, as does her grief at the loss of something wonderful in her life. Gabe's own motives seem crass in comparison. While Fowler stresses the redeeming power of forgiveness throughout the book, one wonders if Benni can forget as well as forgive, and if, in the end, forgiveness is enough. Steps to the Altar is a wonderfully complicated book dealing with the mystery of human love past and present. In this reviewer's opinion, it is Fowler's best effort yet and a story not to be missed.

Reviewed by Mary V. Welk, July 2002

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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