Anna Bouverie is the title character in this beguiling novel of manners and mores. For two decades she has endured, oh, how she has silently endured. She has inhabited quite uninhabitable houses, scraped by on her husband Peter's pathetic salary, clothed herself and her three children in the castoffs of parishioners and borne quite unbearable isolation. When Peter, the vicar of a rural English village, fails to receive an expected promotion and retreats into bitterness, Anna, who's fed up with the petty provincialism of both her husband and the parish, shows herself to be far more resourceful than the woman with a similar name living in a similarly small-minded village: Emma Bovary. Anna takes a job stocking shelves in a grocery store as a way to bolster her fragile sense of self-worth and to pay her youngest child's school tuition. In the process she offends several members of her husband's flock who feel such a post is unseemly, and she infuriates the fiercely conventional Peter. If there are plenty of women in the congregation who feel Anna is not fulfilling her obligation as a cleric's wife and jump in to fill the breach, there also are a number of men who feel that the pretty Anna is wasting herself on the town of Loxford and on her lox of a husband, and they jump in to fill the breach.
Joanna Trollope, a descendant of Anthony's, has successfully mined the bucolic, clerical territory of her kinsman's Barsetshire novels, particularly Barchester Towers. There is, notably in the climax, a bit of the soap opera in The Rector's Wife, but it is a sin easy to forgive in light of the memorable scenes of blighted domesticity and the chance to watch a lovely, lost woman grab hold of her life. (Random House, $21)