Picks and Pans Review: If Hester Prynne Were Released from Her Scaffold Today, She'd Be Brandishing Her Scarlet Letter on Oprah. And. Perhaps, Like Roxanne Pulitzer, She Would Turn Scandal into Potboiling Profit.

UPDATED 10/08/1990 at 01:00 AM EDT Originally published 10/08/1990 at 01:00 AM EDT

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Rebounding smartly from the sex-drugs-and-trumpets revelations that emerged during her 1982 Palm Beach divorce from newspaper heir Peter Pulitzer and subsequent loss of custody of her twin sons, Roxanne produced a best-selling account of that rank romance. The Prize Pulitzer, in 1988. Now the former aerobics instructor expands her literary career with a novel set among the same kind of sun-kissed social titans who peopled her memoir.

Again, a custody dispute propels the action. In this fictional story, though, it's a long-ago battle between elegant outsider Dexter Portino and his acclaimed photographer wife, Anne Graham. At stake: the couple's twin daughters, Carrie and Gracie.

The sisters are now adults. Carrie is the poised, successful beauty, with a movie-star husband and her own twin sons; Gracie is the family loony. (How loony? The night before her current psychiatric incarceration. Gracie disrupted Dad's dinner party when she was discovered "huddled. completely naked in the china closet.")

Zipping back and forth from past to present, Pulitzer concocts a compelling, if wildly improbable, tale—scattering sexual secrets at suitable junctures. Dexter Portino has a sadistic streak—and an evil weakness. Daughter Carrie grows more vulnerable page by page. And talk about secrets! Just wait till you hear Grade's secret!

But, you don't have to wait. It's. uh, trumpeted on the book jacket, in a blurb where Carrie confronts her husband: "Don't talk to me about Daddy! You don't even know that you slept with my sister!"

It's not Dominick Dunne's old-moneyed L.A. or Tom Wolfe's newly minted New York City. Still, Twins seems the kind of slovenly social satire that Palm Beach deserves. As for the reader—until the last 50 pages, where Pulitzer has trouble extricating her characters from the convoluted plot—the novel is a rival to the best of Collins, Booth and Krantz. (Villard. $18.95)

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