By Lindsay Steele
The Catholic Messenger
CORALVILLE — Kevin Knapp leaves his home in Iowa to begin his broadcasting career in Austin, Minnesota, where he meets his future wife, Maggie McGovern. Kevin quickly moves up the corporate ladder at the local radio station as Maggie begins her own career path as a features writer and then news reporter for the Austin newspaper.
Shortly after returning from their honeymoon, tragedy strikes, moving the young couple from routine news reporting to crime investigation.
Inspired by real life people and places, as well as their Catholic faith, Kelly and Mary Neff’s first published novel, “A Perfect Match,” offers an endearing blend of humor, mystery and romance. The novel seamlessly transitions between a trial involving the death of Maggie’s best friend, Sam, and the love story between Kevin and Maggie that preceded it. Mary Neff describes “A Perfect Match” as a novel about “how you weather adversity together (as a couple) with faith and a community that supports you.”
The married couple, members of St. Thomas More Parish in Coralville, were inspired to start writing the novel about five years ago while reminiscing about Kelly Neff’s early days in the radio industry. Kelly Neff is a semi-retired radio professional while Mary is a licensed mental health counselor who works in health care administration.
Although the storyline is fictional, the Neffs set it in the same town where Kelly Neff got his start, Austin, Minnesota. They set the scene as accurately as possible by referencing real-life “Austinites” and businesses from the late 1960s and early 1970s, with permission. They visited Austin several times while writing the novel. “There really was a Country Kitchen that had great strawberry pie,” Kelly Neff recalled. The diner is a frequent date spot for Kevin and Maggie early on in their relationship.
The Neff’s 138-page novel had me hooked immediately. It is playfully written, with dry humor and pop culture references sprinkled throughout. One of my favorite passages comes in chapter six, when Kevin asks Maggie’s father for permission to take her on a date. Kevin observes, “He eyed me over the rim of his glasses perched on the end of his nose, the universal Dad language for ‘Touch her and you’re a dead man.’ I swear I saw a shotgun mounted on the wall, but that may have just been my imagination.”
The characters’ Catholic faith is part of the story. A turning point in Kevin and Maggie’s relationship occurs when Maggie bluntly asks Kevin if faith is as important to him as it is to her. One of the most meaningful references to their faith takes place when Kevin witnesses his wife grieving the death of her best friend, Sam. The tragedy kick-starts the story. “I was going to hold my wife as long as it took to console her,” Kevin says. “God’s faithful aren’t spared from all pain, they’re just given the strength to endure it.”
The Neffs said they attempted to write the story to convey the importance of faith without it becoming “preachy.” They said this subtle approach was attractive to the publisher, Christian Faith Publishing. Mary Neff described the publisher as a step above self-publishing, as it offers support to writers such as reviewing drafts and making observations.
Writing a novel as a couple was challenging at times, but the Neffs were committed to working through the disagreements. “I think the process of writing was as interesting as the plot for me,” Mary Neff said. “There is tension sometimes and you work through it. It all turned out just fine.”
The novel came out in mid-2019 on Amazon.com, Barnes and Noble and in select independent bookstores in Iowa and Minnesota. The response, thus far, has been positive, with most reviews calling it an easy or fun read.
Readers often assume that the events of the story actually happened, and that the love story between Kevin and Maggie mimics the Neffs’ love story. That is not the case, but they see it as validation of their efforts to portray the story and the community in a realistic way.
Mary Neff said she and her husband hope that everyone who reads the novel will get warm, fuzzy feelings. “That was really one of our goals — that you feel better at the end of it than you did at the beginning.”
(Editor’s note: Lindsay Steele is a reporter for The Catholic Messenger. Contact her at email@example.com or by phone at (563) 888-4248.)